JERUSALEM (Apr. 21)
Saying that the Middle East peace process is stalled, but not dead, Prime Minister Shimon Peres pointed to the burgeoning Israeli economy as one of several hopeful signs for the region’s future.
Despite the current conflict in Lebanon, Peres remained hopeful when he addressed more than 700 supporters of Israel Bonds who arrived in Israel last week to take part in the organization’s Jerusalem 3,000 International Delegation.
“I do believe there will be a new Middle East,” Peres said. “We are now in a transitional period, facing all the dangers and paying all the costs for having a different Middle East — a Middle East of peace.”
The Israel Bonds mission, which was organized to underscore the organization’s continuing commitment to the development of Israel in general and of Jerusalem in particular, took on an added dimension as Israel’s conflict in southern Lebanon with Hezbollah militants intensified during the group’s visit.
David Hermelin, international chairman of Israel Bonds, said there had been a “few” cancellations due to the latest series of events.
But he added, “We’re very proud to be here to show our solidarity and unity with our Israeli brothers and sisters during this very difficult time.”
Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, who addressed the group during a dinner honoring 25 families that contributed to Israeli life and institutions, said, “The fact that you all came at this time is as important as anything else you do for the State of Israel and Israel Bonds.”
Peres, the keynote speaker at the awards dinner, stressed that there is reason for optimism.
“In spite of initial doubts, the Palestinian Authority is engaged in ending terrorism. It is sealing mosques, arresting activists, searching for arms, even killing some dangerous terrorists.”
The peace process, he added, is “not complete or perfect, but it is revolutionary in nature.”
On the diplomatic front, Peres pointed to his recent visit to the Persian Gulf nations of Oman and Qatar, where he recalled seeing “military bands playing ‘Hatikvah’ and the Israeli flag waving.”
“This was in my eyes a new Middle East,” he said.
Equally important, Peres said, was that “Israel’s economy has changed dramatically” as a result of the new political climate.
“Once important companies in the U.S. and Europe learned that Israel is leading the peace process, a great deal of investment has come in.
“The country’s GNP has almost doubled in the past four years and personal income has jumped from $11,000 to $16,500,” the prime minister said.
The members of the Israel Bonds mission will seek to convey Peres’ optimistic message upon their return home, Hermelin said.
“We will be telling Jews that they should be here, especially this year, to demonstrate our solidarity and unity with Israel and the city of Jerusalem.
“Israel has made tremendous steps toward peace, and this should be reflected in tourism,” Hermelin said.