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Jimmy Carter Administration: Remarks at the Welcoming Ceremony for Israeli PM Begin

(July 19, 1977)

THE PRESIDENT. This is a very important day in the history of our Nation and, I think, perhaps for the future of the Middle East and perhaps even for the future of the world.

We have with us a very distinguished visitor, Prime Minister Begin and his wife, Aliza. I'm particularly thrilled to have them come here. We've had many distinguished visitors this year, but he's the first one who comes as the head of a nation who is junior to me. All the others have been Presidents or Prime Ministers or Kings much longer. So, I welcome a chance to act as a senior statesman this morning, Prime Minister Begin.

We also have very important questions to discuss between us. We approach these conferences with deep common interests and with a sincerity of purpose that naturally binds us together.

Prime Minister Begin represents a nation which has just demonstrated again the importance of a true democracy where people in an absolutely unconstrained expression of individual preference in open elections can decide who their leader will be.

This has been a great test for Israel, and the orderly transition of authority and responsibility from one political party to another has been carried out not only with peace and cooperation but, I think, with an enhancement of the confidence in the people of Israel in the future.

I think, to me, having read the writings and biography of our distinguished visitor this morning, there's a great parallel between what Israel is, what it stands for, and what Prime Minister Begin is and what he stands for. He's a man who has demonstrated a willingness to suffer for principle, a man who has shown superlative personal courage in the face of trial, challenge, disappointment, but who has ultimately prevailed because of a depth of his commitment and his own personal characteristics. And this is a strong parallel with what his nation has been and is. He's a man of principle and a man of independence, and the nation of Israel is a people of principle and independence.

One of the important personal characteristics about Prime Minister Begin which I admire is his deep and unswerving religious commitments. This has always been a guiding factor in his consciousness and in his pursuit of unswerving goals. There's a quietness about him which goes with determination and a fiery spirit in his expressions of his beliefs to the public. And this is as it should be.

I was particularly impressed that the first official action of his government was to admit into Israel 66 homeless refugees from Vietnam who had been floating around in the oceans of the world, excluded by many nations who are their neighbors, who had been picked up by an Israeli ship and to whom he gave a home. It was an act of compassion, an act of sensitivity, and a recognition of him and his government about the importance of a home for people who are destitute and who would like to express their own individuality and freedom in a common way, again typifying the historic struggle of the people of Israel.

I've been encouraged by his statements that all the points of dispute with his Arab neighbors are negotiable; that this year might be a time of success in the so far frustrated efforts to bring permanent peace and security into the Middle East.

We share that common project. And although there might be differences of perspective and viewpoint between him and me, his nation and the United States, that common goal of finding a path to permanent peace will inevitably bind us together.

We are honored by his presence. We welcome him and his wife as our visitors.

And I would like to close my comments of welcome to him by quoting from Isaiah, from a Bible which he and I both read, given to us by God, whom we both worship. Isaiah said: "And the work of righteousness shall be peace, and the effects of righteousness, quietness and assurance forever."

Thank you very much, and welcome, sir.

[At this point, the Prime Minister responded. His opening remarks were in Hebrew, and the translation follows:]

THE PRIME MINISTER. Mr. President, I have come from the land of Zion and Jerusalem as the spokesman for an ancient people and a young nation. God's blessing on America, the hope of the human race. Peace to your great nation.

[The Prime Minister continued in English.]

Mr. President, I have come to you as the spokesman for an ancient people and a young renascent nation. In our own time these people were strewn into the abyss. It had to extricate itself from the depths of the pits with the last vestige of its strength through an unequaled fight for national self-liberation of the few against the many, of the weak against the strong, of right against might.

This is, Mr. President, the reason why we yearn for peace, pray for peace, and shall do everything humanly possible and make all the possible endeavors to bring about real peace between us and our neighbors. Peace is inseparable from national security.

May I assure you, Mr. President, that to us that concept is no excuse for anything; neither is it a cloak of anything. To us, with the experience of physical annihilation and spiritual redemption, national security may mean the lives of every man, woman, and child in Israel. The lives can be, under certain circumstances, directly threatened and put in jeopardy.

Mr. President, we in Israel see in you not only the fair citizen of your great, mighty country, but also the leader and the defender of the free world.

However, the free world has shrunk, indeed has been shrinking. It can be likened in our time to an island battered by bitter winds, by stormy seas, by high waves. Therefore, all free women and men should stand together to persevere in the struggle for human rights, to preserve human liberty, to make sure "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Mr. President, I am deeply grateful for the heartwarming words you said to me and about me today, which I do not deserve. But your appreciation is very dear to my wife and myself. We thank you.

You mentioned the decision by the Cabinet and myself in Israel to give refuge and haven to the Vietnamese refugees saved by an Israeli boat from the depths of the Pacific Ocean, threatened with drowning and exposure.

It was a natural act to us, Mr. President. We remembered, we have never forgotten that boat with 900 Jews, having left Germany in the last weeks before the Second World War for Cuba. When they reached the Cuban shores, their visas were declared nonvalid, and then they were 9 months at sea, traveling from harbor to harbor, from country to county, crying out for refuge. They were refused.

Eventually they went back to Europe. Some of them saved their lives. The majority of them went to the gas chambers. We have never forgotten the lot of our people, persecuted, humiliated, ultimately physically destroyed. And therefore, it was natural that my first act as Prime Minister was to give those people a haven in the land of Israel.

Mr. President, now we shall have Hebrews speaking Vietnamese in our country.

I share your view that we stand together for human liberty and dignity. And we may have difference of opinion, but we shall never disagree; we may only agree to differ.

Mr. President, my wife and I are deeply grateful to you and Mrs. Carter for the gracious hospitality you have bestowed upon us. We do hope that not in too distant a future we may reciprocate in Jerusalem. The people of Israel will receive you with an open and warm heart and with the traditional hospitality all of us inherited from old Abraham.

Thank you, Mr. President.

Sources: Public Papers of the President