On November 19th, 2008, then President Shimon Peres visited the UK and was awarded an honorary knighthood by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. During his visit, he also gave a speech to both Houses of Parliament. Read the full text of the address below.
Mr. Speaker, Lord Speaker, distinguished lords, members of Parliament,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
While addressing the Israeli Knesset, Prime Minister Gordon Brown shared with us a story of his father.
The Knesset was deeply moved by the great believer who used to hold an annual pilgrimage to Israel and upon his return shared with his family, feelings regarding the state of the Holy Land and the spirit of Jerusalem.
And then the Prime Minister added: “I will never forget those early images of your home in my home, and the stories my father would tell. Stories of the struggles, sacrifices, tribulations and triumphs of the Israeli people in their new state. Your home is mine too.”
His remarks invoked a distant memory within me. Today, in your parliament, I feel like your home is my home as well.
Gordon Brown’s father cherished the Bible, my father experienced an attempt to kill the people of the Bible.
In pre-state Israel, my father volunteered for the Royal British Army. He was captured by the German forces and became a prisoner of war. First he hid in Greece.
Once captured, he was sent to Damsdorf camp, close to Auschwitz. He escaped and was caught again, now sentenced to death without trial. He was saved at the last moment by an Australian chaplain who jumped in between the German firing squad and my father, warning them not to shoot due to the absence of trial.
Thankfully, he escaped again. This time with a most unusual partner, Charles Coward – a brave British soldier, nicknamed “The Count of Auschwitz”. We later learned from a bestselling book that he and my father found a way to save Jewish victims from the Auschwitz gas chambers. My father and Charlie escaped together and hid in a German farm. Towards the end of the war, my father took a German carriage harnessed to two horses and headed towards the advancing allied forces. He was arrested by American troops. It took a while for his identity to be established. For five years we did not hear from him. When he returned, our family gained a father with a new experience.
Later on, “The Count of Auschwitz” visited Israel. It was a moving day for many Israelis but even more so for my family. For us, he was not only the savior of many Jews but also our father’s brother-in-arms.
My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen,
My family arrived in Israel when it was still under British mandate. In our pockets were British Palestinian passports. In our hearts the Balfour declaration.
The State of Israel began to take shape as Great Britain, under the leadership of Winston Churchill, saved the world from the Nazi threat. It was a time when many countries closed their gates to Holocaust survivors. The nascent Jewish state was alarmed. The urgency of building a Jewish state with open gates to absorb the displaced was crucial. Under the leadership of David Ben Gurion, it became our top priority. An entire nation’s calling.
The words of the great poet Isaac Rosenbeg, killed by the last shrapnel on the last day of the First World War, convey the spirit of the time:
They see with living eyes
How long they have been dead.
When discussing Israeli-British relations, we must always look to history. It affected our past, it may guide our future.
The British people were early to adopt the Bible, to explore it, teach it to their children. Biblical values were integrated into their lives and prayers. They served as a moral compass. The Ten Commandments resonate in the Magna Carta: “To no one shall we sell, to none deny or delay, right of justice.”
Israel would not have a vibrant democracy if it hadn’t been for the British legacy. The way in which Great Britain ran the Mandate, and its courageous fight against the Nazis, inspired the state of Israel. David Ben Gurion, my mentor, was in London during the Blitz. He was in awe of the unforgettable sight of fathers and mothers, the elderly and infants remaining fearless under the rain of the V-2 rockets.
He wrote home: “One can say that if England, with all its humanity, were to survive the Nazi disaster, it would be due to the rule of democracy and freedom that has taken root.” The United Kingdom proved that no missile can destroy freedom.
Our relationship was mostly illuminated, though shadows were cast from time to time, like the White Paper of 1938. The great light of the Balfour Declaration will never be dimmed.
We shall remember the many British leaders who stood by Israel even in hard times. As Churchill told the Parliament during a debate about the Jewish National Home in Israel: “You have no right to support public declarations made in the name of your country in the crisis and heat of war and then afterwards, when all is cold and prosaic, to turn around.”
This was the voice of Great Britain – a bastion of reason throughout human history.
The United Kingdom shaped the modern Middle East. I am not certain the story about ‘divide and conquer’ is right. Rule in spite of division might be a more accurate description.
The heavens united the Middle East as the origin of the three monotheistic religions. Earth, however, divided it. Ethnic differences, old prejudices and tribal divisions have deep roots. While prayers united, swords wounded.
We never stopped praying. There was never a war without regret. Missed opportunities were lost with no return.
My Lords, Ladies and gentlemen,
Agriculture divided the land, introducing borders and fences, later to be defended by armed forces.
Times have changed. Science has replaced land as the basis of economy. Science knows no borders. It is not impressed by ethnic differences or old prejudices. In the new reality, classic armies are no longer as relevant. Instead, we see the emergence of terror, nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. They stop at no border, and are not deterred by fences. These challenges have no better answer but living in peace. Good wars are only those that are avoided.
The current economic crisis reflects the world’s inter-dependency. Globality does not separate policy from economics. As a matter of fact, economy is the real locomotive of present policy. It is likely that the present crisis will further globality and generate more responsibility. Global threats unite us. So do global hopes.
We have to take a stand against the menace of terror and nuclear threats.
Against the destruction of the environment.
Against the misuse of water.
Against the waste of energy.
We have to tackle the spreading maladies, which are the source of human bitterness. We have to work together for human life, dignity, freedom and introduce social justice in our midst. These threats and hopes, are particularly relevant in the Middle East. It seems the region dangerously combines exaggerated declarations with a lack of action.
A crisis can occasionally help redeem us from the shortcomings of our past. The wars of yesterday will not resolve the conflicts of today.
My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen,
In its 60 years of existence, Israel fought seven wars. Defeat would have ended our existence. However, victory did not necessarily yield peace.
We insisted that a day of war shall never postpone a day of freedom. That the glory of victory shall never weaken our desire for peace. As a matter of fact, the peace we have won, though incomplete, was achieved through negotiations. We reached peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. Though at times imperfect, peace prevails as all sides prefer it to the alternative.
We started to negotiate with the Palestinians. We have made some progress. Eventually, we will accomplish our goal.
We left Lebanon. We left Gaza and dismantled the settlements we built there. We are weighing the Syrian option – whether it is a clear cut turn for peace.
We now explore the Saudi initiative that evolved into an Arab Peace proposal. Contrary to their past policy of the three nays of Khartoum (no to recognition, no to negotiations and no to peace) the Arab initiative calls for a comprehensive regional peace. The Saudi king has initiated a United Nations General Assembly session dedicated to the culture of peace.
In my address there last week, I responded positively to the Arab initiative. However, it should be clear that agreement can not be achieved by a simple ‘take-it-or-leave it’ offer. We couldn’t accept all the articles of the Arab Initiative. The truth is that it’s hard to answer all demands at a time when some parties in the region reject peace.
Hamas violently rejects compromise. It continues to fire rockets at Israeli civilians. We can understand land for peace but will not accept land in return for rocket fire.
Hizbullah is stubbornly belligerent. And the Iranian leadership is obsessed with its quest for regional religious domination. This quest is supported by long range missiles, enriched uranium and fanatic incitement – all fueled by the excessive price of oil. The Iranian leadership’s grand design is to convert the Middle East from a region of nations into one religious bloc.
They attempt to impose their version on everyone. Whoever disagrees is deemed a heretic and is doomed to disappear.
The conflict in the Middle East serves as fertile ground for Ahmedinejad. In discussions with Arab leaders I hear their opposition to any form of religious colonialism.
My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen,
There is a need for a joint effort to stop the Iranian threat. To answer fear with hope. The moderate Arab leaders feel that ending the conflict must come before the conflict may bring an end to the Middle East. The international community should prevent Iran from shattering the already fragile stability in the region.
The Middle East requires international support to make change possible. Israel will do its utmost to support the moderates. Some of the Arab leaders with whom I spoke indicated that if the Palestinian conflict is resolved, they can view it as a stepping stone towards a comprehensive peace in the Middle East.
Israel decided to continue negotiations with the Palestinians even throughout the upcoming elections. We shall try to conclude the domains in which major progress has already been made. The basic premise of the negotiations is the two state solution, namely, to establish an independent Palestinian state living side by side with Israel, with secure borders, peace and prosperity.
My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen,
We are not at war with the Iranian people. It is the Iranian leadership that calls for war against us – non-Muslims and Muslims who refuse to adhere to their attempt to gain hegemony.
On one hand, we see how Iranian radicalism thrives on the division of the international community and the disproportionate cost of oil. It permits them to invest fortunes in weapons of mass destruction in spite of their feeble economy. This Iranian policy is a grave danger to world security. The way to confront it now is an economic strategy that will value development and punish belligerency.
On the other hand, Europe, Japan, Turkey and the United States have announced their economic commitment to the Palestinian state-in-being. They may be willing to extend their support for a new Middle East in support of people, not weapons.
A new Middle East can follow the example of the European Union: political borders without economic divide. It is essential to end incitement and introduce a language of peace – in places of worship and in schools alike.
Great Britain can play a leading role in promoting this creation. It possesses an experience and intimate knowledge of the dividing and unifying factors in the region. It can link the region with the global modern economy. The world today is balanced between despair and hope. We have to encourage those working for positive change in the region: from Egypt to the Palestinian Authority, from Turkey to Saudi Arabia, from Jordan to Qatar.
Meetings between inter-faith leaders can promote understanding among believers. We live in a world of differences but not in a world of discrimination. We do not have to kill one another simply because we are different.
My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen,
We are at a crossroad. Let’s choose hope over fear. Change over despair. Success in the Middle East can provide the world with the energy it needs in times of crisis.
I am grateful for the privilege to address you in this distinguished chamber. You represent two great institutions, the front line in a fortress of democracy. Your call to the world carries enormous political and moral weight. The region needs your spirit, your voice and firm support as it marches ahead towards a new dawn of peace.