Last night and this morning, you’ve heard much about the Israeli economic miracle. You’ve heard that Israel is a country with more high-tech start-ups, more scientific papers, technological patents, more Nobel prizes per capita than any country in the world. You’ve heard about our amazing representation on NASDAQ, our R & D operations for Intel, Google, and other high-tech giants, our pioneering role in the search for alternative energy, and the brilliant vision of Better Place.
You may also have heard that 2010 is Israel’s biggest tourist year ever, breaking last year’s record by 27%, or that Israel’s thriving Israeli film industry has produced two Oscar Best Foreign Picture nominations in the last two years. You might have heard that Israeli’s wine industry, more 140 wineries strong, has surpassed the 30 million bottle a year mark with annual export increase of 25%—including major increases to France—or that Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer has now been named the most successful national bank governor in the world.
You’ve heard from eminent entrepreneurs and economists, but you’ve yet to hear from an historian. Before assuming my current post, I spent nearly thirty years studying Israeli history and the emergence of the American-Israeli alliance. As an historian, I can’t help but be aware of the events that occurred on this day.
Sixty-two years ago, Israel was in the throes of a war for independence, war that began with a state with 600,000 Jews—roughly half of the population of Washington, D.C.—armed mainly with handguns and facing Arab armies with hundreds of warplanes, tanks, and artillery pieces. This was a country with no economy and no major allies.
But leading that country was an indomitable man, David Ben-Gurion. He had to fight Syrians and Lebanese in the Galilee, The Jordanians and Iraqis in the East, and in the South, the Egyptians, who had conquered all of the Negev, an area allotted to the Jewish state by the UN, constituting 62% of its territory.
By October, 1948, Israel forces had liberated the Galilee and lifted the siege of Jerusalem, but the Negev remained occupied by Egypt. The UN imposed a ceasefire in place, effectively recognizing Egypt’s acquisition of the Negev, and even some of Ben-GUrion’s closest associates urged him, “Forget about it, BG, it’s only a bunch of sand.”
But no. For Ben-Gurion, the Negev was the cradle of the newborn Jewish polity, the crucible of Zionist energy. He did not give up. He ignored his advisors, he defied the UN, and on Oct. 15, 1948, he ordered the launching of Operation Yoav, to drive the invaders from the Negev and ensure its inclusion in the sovereign state of Israel. And they did.
Today, the Negev is witnessing the fulfillment of the Ben-Gurion’s dream. My family and I lived in the Negev for five years and we saw the new communities springing up, the industrial complexes, the campuses. None of that would have transpired without the leadership, the courage of one man.
Today also marks the 15th anniversary, according to the Hebrew calendar, of another transformative event in Israel’s history, an unspeakable tragic event. Today is the day that Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s prime minister, was assassinated.
Rabin had played a pivotal role in my life. As a teenager active in a Zionist youth movement in this country, I was introduced to Rabin, then Israel’s ambassador to the United States. The experience was indescribably moving, and I secretly vowed right then that I someday, I, too, to would represent Israel to its greatest ally.
Yet vastly beyond his influence on me, Rabin transformed Israel’s policy by embarking on a historic peace process with the Palestinians. This was a flawed process in many ways, true, but Rabin saw that if Israel were to remain a strong, democratic Jewish state and a state capable of taking on the looming challenges in the region, above all Iran, it needed that peace. He encountered opposition from those who charged that he was moving too fast and from others who complained that he wasn’t moving fast enough—those were tumultuous times—but he never lost sight of his vision.
Yitzhak Rabin paid for that vision with his life, and yet, here we are, 15 years later, still striving to realize it. And here, today, too, Israel is blessed with principled and courageous leadership.
While facing terrorist groups sworn to destroy every last one of us—women, children, senior citizens—and some 60,000 Hamas and Hizbollah rockets pointed at our home; with so-called human rights organizations and boycott movements and campus coalitions denying our right to defend ourselves and our even our right to exist; and with Iranian leaders swearing to wipe us off the map and striving to produce the nuclear means for accomplishing that—with all of those challenges, the Israeli government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not for a nanosecond reduced its commitment to peace.
Yet we do not a peace at any price—not a peace that will impair Israel’s security or impugn its identity as the nation state of the Jewish people. As Prime Minister Netanyahu said last year in his speech at Bar-Ilan Unversity, he will not allow any future Palestianian state to become another Lebanon or Gaza. That state will not have an army with missiles that can shoot into our neighborhoods or an air force that can shoot down civilian airliners at Ben-Gurion Airport. That state will not be able to sign treaties with hostile regimes such as Iran’s.
Furthermore, the Prime Minister insisted, just as we will recognize future Palestinian state as the nation state of the Palestinians, so, too, will the Palestinians have to recognize the Jews as an indigenous people endowed with an unassailable right to self-government in their homeland, the nation-state of the Jewish people.
Like Ben-Gurion, Netanyahu will not allow the UN or any other organization to dictate our borders. Our borders will only be established through direct negotiations with the Palestinians and our other Arab neighbors. Like Rabin, Netanyahu will remain committed to a permanent, stable, and secure peace.
We have much to be proud about in our economic achievements. From a country which, in the 1950s, subsisted on ration cards, and in the 1960s experienced a daunting depression, runaway inflation in the 1980s, and the economic blows of the bursting high-tech bubble and suicide bombers, Israel today is an economic miracle. That miracle was brought about by our people’s faith, strength, and resilience, and by our outstanding leaders of both yesterday and today. That miracle is the result of our relationship with our closest ally, the United States and the American people—those who stood by us in 1948, together in war and in the search for peace.
Today, Israel is America’s twentieth largest customer. The U.S. does more business with Israel than it does with Saudi Arabia, Argentina, or Russia. In addition to our spiritual ties, our bonds of democracy and human freedom, and our vast strategic cooperation, the commercial relationship between Israel and the United States lies at the heart of the one of the strongest and most vibrant alliances in modern history.