To paraphrase Elton John, nothing would keep me away from here, not even a vote on passing the two-year budget which is another one of the novelties that we’re introducing into the economic world. Nothing would keep me from coming here because I want to be with all of you, beginning with my friends – I think a great Jewish leader – Natan Sharansky. You talk about inspiration? That’s inspiration. You have provided it and you are providing it in bushels and buckets and trucks, because you’ve always stood up for the Jewish people and for Jewish identity and pride. And that’s something that I’ll talk about in a minute.

I also have the opportunity to see here our friend, Avi Pazner. Avi, thank you for the service you’ve done for the Jewish people and you continue to do. And Yofit, Michael, Hagai, Duvdev, Richie and all of you.

I think that the question of pride and identity is more central than people often think it to be. A few months ago, I spoke at the Herzliya Conference. It’s one of these annual conferences that we have here. It’s a place where prime ministers traditionally speak about strategic challenges facing Israel. I didn’t use this opportunity to speak about Iran. I didn’t elaborate on the peace process. Instead, I spoke about the Heritage Plan that I am planning for our government. This is a plan that seeks to familiarize our people here and abroad – the Jewish people – with our ancient history and our modern struggle to reclaim our sovereignty and reestablish our sovereignty in our ancestral homeland. It takes, among other things, about 150 sites from the Biblical past and from the ancient period and sites of modern Zionism. You want a site? You know that picture where Ben-Gurion announced the declaration of the modern Jewish state? It’s dilapidated, crumbling. We’re bringing it back to life. This is an example. There are many, many others.

We have plans of how to get these demonstrable elements of our history, known to our people so that they actually visit it and I hope you do the same. I’m sure you will, and be involved in making this program become a reality in Jewish life.

The reason I didn’t speak about Iran or the peace process is not because I think these issues are not critical to Israel’s future. There are vitally important. On Iran, we have a mission – all of us, the international community and Israel. That’s the need to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. There were sanctions passed in the UN. There’s more needed. And those sanctions that could have more telling effect will be those that are adopted by like-minded nations, that are directed at things that really make a difference. The first among them is Iran’s energy sector. But there’s little time. There’s little time and there is a great challenge.

On the peace process: I just met with some journalists, some of them quite preeminent in Israel, and one of them asked me: “Why do you refuse to meet with Abu Mazen?” And I was quite startled, because from day one I’ve called on the Palestinian leadership to begin direct talks, to resume them. And on day one, we went ahead and did demonstrable, credible and in some cases unprecedented things to enable that process to move forward speedily. First, we removed hundreds of roadblocks and checkpoints that facilitated a rapid economic growth, in fact boom, in the Palestinian economy here in the West Bank. Second, I gave a speech at Bar Ilan University and crystallized a national consensus around a solution, which is a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state of Israel. Third, we made an unprecedented decision to put a moratorium on new construction as a gesture, something that was not a gesture for the resumption of talks.

We’ve not had any commensurate response from the Palestinian leadership, I regret to say. They tried to block our entry into the OECD – they didn’t succeed. They’ve been pushing the Goldstone Report in the ICC. That’s disappointing. But, if you look credibly at the last year, my government has made every effort to resume the peace talks and the Palestinians regrettably have made every effort not to resume the peace talks.

So the answer to that journalist is a simple call – we should begin direct talks for peace now, without delay and without preconditions.

But the reason I spoke not about these issues in that conference, and the reason I raise it today – that is the Heritage Plan – was because I wanted to take the opportunity to make clear the strategic significance that I attach to strengthening our heritage; the importance that has to securing our Jewish future. There are many who are working now around the world relentlessly to delegitimize the Jewish state and at the root of this effort to delegitimize us, is the effort to disconnect us to our past, to distort or disregard or eliminate from the collective consciousness our heritage. This is something we cannot allow to succeed.

In order to secure our future, we must strengthen our connection and our knowledge of our past. Because the Jewish state is here. It’s not in Denmark. It’s not in Tibet. It’s here, because this is where the Jewish people were forged. This is where we grew as a nation. This is where we imparted the great values to the world, to civilization. This is where we prayed to return. This is where there was a continual presence of Jews. This is where we prayed every year to back to – back to Jerusalem. We came back here in great growing numbers and rebuilt our country.

This is not a foreign land. This is our ancestral homeland. The Jewish state is in the Jewish land. I’ve said before, and I’ll say it again – our existence depends not only on a weapons system or on our military strength or the strength of our economy or our innovation, our exports – all these things that are so essential and that are we are doing some remarkable things in. These are all essential, but our future depends first and foremost on the knowledge and national sentiment that we, as parents, bestow to our children, that our generation bestows to future generations. It depends on our ability to explain and understand the justice of our cause and to demonstrate our affinity for this land. I think to explain it to others, but first to understand and explain it to ourselves. And this effort is not merely the effort of the people in Israel. It’s the effort and the responsibility of Jews throughout the world. It’s critical to our common future, because there is no future for the Jewish people without a future for the Jewish state; and there is no future for the Jewish state without a solid anchoring in our history and in our connection to this important, critical, unique place – this land, this city.

The plan we’re initiated within Israel should be matched by sustained effort by Jewish communities throughout the world, an effort to deepen their connection to Israel and to strengthen their identity as Jews. That’s why, Natan, I applaud your efforts to rethink the role of the Jewish Agency in the life of our people and to focus on connecting every Jew with our heritage, our people and our homeland.

I believe Aliyah must remain a top priority, but to convince young Jews from many countries to come here… why would they come here? They would come here, I believe, because of two things. First, because they believe they have a connection to our people; and second, because they have strengthened their identity and their connection with the Jewish state. This doesn’t come by itself. It is something that you have to nurture. That is why I supported Birthright instantly. First of all, I thought that our economy was growing sufficiently and would grow sufficiently under the right policies so we could actually afford to help the Diaspora. That was a shocking idea at the time. It’s still a shocking idea if you think about it. But less so after we see some of the things happening in the West. That’s why I supported MASA and high school programs, and many other programs to bring young Jewish people to Israel.

I think this is vital; I think it’s important. It’s true a lot of people were skeptical that these things would grow and develop, but I think they have, and I think they’ve made a profound difference. They’ve connected an entire generation of young Jews to Israel at time when there’s so many forces that are working to disconnect them from Israel. So I am pleased that you are working to continue, to expand and strengthen these programs. I applaud you for doing this. I encourage you to do this, and I will participate with you in doing this.

I think we should set very clear goals. I think we should set three goals on this. The first is that within five years, every young Jew who wants to visit Israel will be able to come to Israel. I think this is something that we should define and stand by, and whereas it looked an impossible, it’s no longer an impossible goal. We can do this.

The second is to bring Jewish educators and community leaders on special training courses to Israel. It’s not sufficient just to have the young people come. It’s important to have their educators come here as well – no less important. I would like to see every Jew, and maybe this is the most important thing, every Israeli Jew understand and appreciate the connection between Israel and the Diaspora. It’s not just about your connection to us; it’s about our connection to you. And this requires an educational effort inside Israel no less that outside.

Natan, these are not trivial goals. They are essential and they are part of our fabric as a people. It’s not easy; nothing is easy. But I think that it will require a real partnership between us, and if we have that partnership, we’ll succeed. We’ve already shown that. I’m prepared for that partnership and I’m prepared to invest in that partnership.

They always ask prime minister and presidents, they always ask them the question: “Are you willing to put your money where your mouth is?” And the answer – I think we’ve shown it over the years – yes we are. This is part of a greater challenge. We cannot afford to open up cracks and fissures within our people. We are Jews from six continents and from dozens of countries; we’re Ashkenazim and Sepharadim; we’re secular and religious. It doesn’t matter if you go every week to an Orthodox, Conservative or Reform synagogue. And some don’t go every week. I have to tell you, I don’t go every week. But I do sit down every week, every Shabbat with my son, and we study the Bible. I used to teach him. He now teaches me.

It doesn’t make any difference whether you go or you don’t go. What makes a difference is that we’re one people and we must remain one people. I want to assure you that I will not permit the interests of the majority of world Jewry to be ignored. And that is why I asked Natan Sharansky to ensure that there is a proper dialogue between the leaders of world Jewry and my government. I’ve asked Natan to do this; I’ve asked Yuli Edelstein to be part of it; and I’ve asked myself to be part of it, to be informed continually. That is why I continue to insist that all parties work together to resolve their differences.

This is a critical time in our history. We have to rise above our differences. We have to find a way to arrive at common understandings of what we can do and what we cannot do, because we face several challenges that we have not seen before. In 2000 we had Durban. Remember Durban? It sullied the moral ground. It called Israel an apartheid state. This was a day or two before 9/11 and so people didn’t see what was beginning, what was the storm that was gathering. But it continued. It continued throughout the decade. It gathered force in Goldstone, during our efforts to stop the rocketing from Gaza. It had before that attempts to stop Israeli officers in various countries. It continues now in the aftermath of the flotilla and before the next ones.

Here’s what is really being said: it used to be said, “We’re not against Jews – we’re against Zionists”. Then they said, “No, we’re not against Zionism. It’s okay. There can be a Jewish state. We’re not even against the right of the Jewish state of defend itself. But if you seek to exercise that right, that we’re against”. And a right that you cannot exercise ultimately disappears. And the Jewish state cannot exist without exercising the right of self-defense.

This is what is being challenged. It’s being challenged when we take action to protect our citizens, our children, from wanton rocketing of thousands and thousands of rockets. You know the last time you had thousands and thousands of rockets fired on civilians was in World War Two when Britain was pummeled by Germany. We took action as any country would take, and based on that one parallel, we took a lot less action. That’s an understatement. Yet we are being handed a bill of being war criminals for trying to pinpoint and target the racketeers who embedded themselves in civilian populations. We are seeking to prevent the importation of more rockets and more weapons into this terrorist entity of Hamas – and people say, “You can’t do that”. When our soldiers try peaceably to stop a ship and are nearly pummeled to death, knifed to death, they say, “You cannot protect yourself”. What is challenged today is Israel’s right to exercise self-defense as any country, as any democracy, would. And that is something we must stand collectively and resist.

That too is not going to be easy. But there is only one way to achieve it. Just as we’ve achieved our common goals by standing together, by achieving the unachievable, by building this land, by creating an economic and technological miracle here, by bringing in our brethren, by resisting all these attacks against us, and now by forging the understanding and love of our history and knowledge of the facts of our history – these are all things we can achieve together. I think that we have to unite today and stand together. This is one of those challenging times.

I have no doubt that we can, that we will rise to that occasion. I have no doubt that we’ll stand together to secure our common future.

Thank you very, very much.