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AIJAC NATIONAL CHAIRMAN MARK LEIBLER

TEXT OF INTRODUCTION TO PRIME MINISTER JOHN HOWARD

PRIME MINISTER'S DINNER

Melbourne, November 22, 2000

 

Prime Minister and Mrs Howard, Premier and Mrs Bracks, Ambassador Levy and Mrs Levy, our generous patrons and honoured guests,

On behalf of the United Israel Appeal of Australia and the Australia/Israel Jewish Affairs Council I am delighted to welcome you all here this evening.

Your first State Visit to Israel, Prime Minister, is the latest chapter in the strong and dynamic relationship between Israel and Australia, going back more than half a century.  It further enhanced your profound, supportive and ongoing close connection with Australia's Jewish community – a relationship spanning several decades.  Moreover, Prime Minister, your latest Israel experience, following earlier visits in 1964 and 1988, is important to us as proud Australian Jews.  After all, Israel is the birthplace of the Jewish people, where, millennia ago, our spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped.

Australia has been unflinching in its commitment to Israel through successive governments, Coalition and Labor, during horrendous acts of terrorism and regional conflict, during the worst excesses of the United Nations when Zionism was equated with racism, and when economic boycotts threatened to literally drive Israel out of business.

Prime Minister, in the few months since your State Visit to Israel, to an Israel filled with optimism and hope of peace, in the blink of an eye, the peace process has collapsed, the Palestinian authority has chosen the path of violence instead of negotiation and Israelis have become depressed by the spectre of further cycles of bloodshed and terror.

All of us here tonight, Prime Minister, are fully aware of your longstanding, close relationship with Israel.  As you said to Prime Minister Barak, just a few months ago:

 "I come as the leader of a nation which has long supported Israel and has long admired the remarkable tenacity of the Israeli people, sometimes in very difficult circumstances."

Well, Prime Minister, those "very difficult circumstances" are with us again and, over the last few weeks, we have certainly witnessed "the remarkable tenacity of the Israeli people" when faced with deliberately orchestrated violence and terror.

Less than three weeks ago, as I was about to leave my hotel in Jerusalem, I heard a dull thud and saw smoke spiraling from a few street blocks away.  The sirens started screeching.  A bomb had exploded in the centre of Jerusalem, a couple of hundred metres from a restaurant where I had recently dined.

Two days earlier, I stood in the Jerusalem apartment of Boris Shtrickman in the suburb of Gilo.  Boris immigrated from Moscow nine years ago.  He was tense and frightened as he reluctantly drew aside the curtain to show me the hole left by the bullet that had recently penetrated his window.  His apartment balcony was under fire almost daily from the adjacent area of Beit Jalah.  The first time it came under fire his four month old daughter had been playing on the floor.

Prime Minister, these are the images that I brought home from my recent visit to Israel.  Difficult to imagine, here, in the blessed tranquility of Australia, where an errant pie makes the front page and keeps political journalists occupied for a week.

At Camp David, Prime Minister Barak offered more for peace than Israel had ever contemplated before - including over 90% of the West Bank and the division of Jerusalem.  But Chairman Arafat refused to compromise.  When other nations told him to return to negotiations, he instead returned to violence.  Chairman Arafat has lately added to the currency of Abba Eban's remark about an earlier era, that the Palestinian leadership never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

The violence towards Israel is not "out of control" and is not limited to rock-throwing youths.  As Boris Shtrickman will attest, behind those 'human shields' armed fighters stand with automatic weapons.  Arafat is in control.  When the German Chancellor met Chairman Arafat there was calm.  When the Chancellor departed Palestinian territory, violence resumed.

Not content with violence in Israel alone, Chairman Arafat, through his false portrayal of the present conflict as a clash of religions, has also triggered a spate of international anti-semitic incidents, including in Australia.

I have no wish to trivialize or diminish in any way the suffering of the Palestinian people.  We were all rightly moved at the sight of a twelve year old Palestinian boy, cowering in fright and then dying in crossfire.  But who bears the responsibility for exposing Palestinian children to such mortal danger?  Who initiated the firing and then sought to capitalise on the deaths of these innocent children to incite even more violence?  These are questions you will not hear asked on CNN and the BBC.

And yet, notwithstanding the violence, the terror and the many setbacks, we live in hope, indeed, beyond hope, we are confident that one day there will be a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The alternative is unthinkable - interminable, continuing cycles of bloodshed and violence.  Indeed, Ehud Barak, during my recent visit to Israel, made it clear at our meeting that, notwithstanding the violence, and the steps needed to counter the violence, Israel remains committed to negotiating a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian conflict.

Yes, Prime Minister Howard, you were right to call Israelis tenacious.  It is the tenacity of a people who have survived attempted annihilation, and the tenacity of a people in pursuit of a just peace with the weary persistence of those who seek to co?exist securely without violence.

In all of this we know we can count on the fair minded friendship of Australia and of John Howard.  Over the decades, Prime Minister, you have built strong personal relationships with many members of our community.  You are conversant with the work of the United Israel Appeal in the rescue and resettlement of Jews in peril in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia and in Ethiopia.  When we are concerned and seek your time, you listen and you care, even when you don't agree.  In a word, a Yiddish word, you are a "mensch".

Prime Minister, welcome.  I have much pleasure in inviting you to address us.

 


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