'Israel is only country in region that has remained stable'

Netanyahu: Arab world respects ‘strong Israel,’ Palestinians will follow

In blustery speech to open Knesset winter session, prime minister hails Israeli ties with Mideast powers, United States

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the opening of the winter session of the Knesset on October 31, 2016.  (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the opening of the winter session of the Knesset on October 31, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that “a strong Israel” is the key to growth and stability in a tumultuous Middle East, telling the Knesset winter session’s opening plenary that the Arab world respected his tough stance and that the Palestinians would soon follow.

“Something significant is taking place: Many in the Arab world are beginning to view Israel with respect and appreciation,” he told Knesset members at the ceremony. “Why did this happen? Because we surrendered? Because we agreed to abandon Jerusalem?”

Striking a very different tone to President Reuven Rivlin, who spoke before him about the need for dialogue and compromise, Netanyahu said the Arab world respects those who stand up for themselves and project strength and power.

“I act differently,” he said. “I’m not deterred by criticism. There is only one policy to ensure our future peace and hope: a strong Israel.”

Citing global news reports at the start of the Arab Spring predicting the ascendancy of Syria and Tunisia, Netanyahu said that Israel is the only country in the region that has remained stable.

Recognizing the truth regarding Israel’s position is what will eventually bring the Palestinians to realize that “we are here to stay,” he said. “Things have turned on their heads. Palestinians won’t bring the Arab world; the Arab world will bring the Palestinians.”

MKs from the Joint (Arab) List walked out of the Knesset plenum as the prime minister began his speech. The move came after the coalition said all of its MKs would boycott Joint List members’ speeches in retaliation for their decision to skip Shimon Peres’s funeral on September 30.

Israel’s strength, Netanyahu continued, could also been seen in its relations with the West.

“Both candidates in the US presidential election have invited me to the White House after the election,” he revealed. “In contrast to what people say, our relations with the US are as strong as ever.”

In his most pointed comments on rumored plans by US President Barack Obama to change his policy on Israel between the November 9 election and his departure from office in January 2017, Netanyahu said that he hoped the president would not “abandon” the Jewish state.

“I would like to express our appreciation for the [US] aid package we received,” he said. “It does not mean, however, that occasional disagreements will not arise between us, but I hope they will be rare. Obama declared in 2011 that peace will not be achieved by the UN resolutions, but through direct negotiations. I believe he will stay true to this, and not abandon Israel.”

Minutes earlier, Rivlin, in a wide-ranging speech on the need for Israeli society’s disparate communities to listen to one another, also seemed to refer to the US election as well as developments in various European countries, warning of the need to safeguard democracy and to engage with those who doubt its relevance.

“Today we see citizens of democracies, older than ours, who are prepared to surrender some of their freedoms for the sake of strong leadership — sometimes demagogic and populist – yet able to establish stability and display strength,” he said. “Some point to the threat in the debate itself — in the liberal, democratic, moral debate, the debate on human rights, on civil rights, the debate on the rule of law and values — the rules of ‘politically correct’ debate that have been forced upon them in a way that has stifled their identity and ability to express their opinion.”

President Reuven Rivlin aspeaking at opening of the winter session of the IKnesset, October 31, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)
President Reuven Rivlin speaking at the opening of the winter session of the Knesset, October 31, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

But while some are shocked by that perspective, people must understand and reconcile with it, Rivlin added. “It would be a grave error to deny them, or alternatively to bemoan from diverse platforms the end of democracy, complain about ‘losing the way’ and the destruction of values. These are value-based positions struggling with the definition of the boundaries, the character, and the legitimacy of democracy.”

Entering the political fray over the future of Israel’s fledgling new public broadcaster, he warned against government intervention in the media.

“Those in favor of a public broadcasting authority cannot turn it into a trumpet of the commissars, and those who oppose a public broadcasting authority should come and state a clear opinion,” he said. “Those who want a public broadcasting authority must ensure that it is unbiased across party lines.”

The prime minister has been leading efforts to shutter the not-yet-on-air broadcasting corporation, which is supposed to replace the ailing Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA).

While the government maintains that it is seeking to curtail the new broadcasting body to cut costs, critics say the real reason is Netanyahu’s fear of the corporation’s political independence. That assessment is buttressed by statements from Netanyahu expressing fear that it will be left-leaning.

“We will rehabilitate the Israel Broadcasting Authority and we will do it with financial responsibility,” Netanyahu said later in his own speech, signaling that he would not compromise on plans to dismantle the new broadcaster.

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