Joy mingles with tears of sorrow as Israel reflects on its 56th birthday.Birthdays serve as a time of reflection. They allow us to ponder how far we have come and how far we have to go. Today Israel reflects on its 56th birthday.

In Israel, every joy bears some tears of sorrow. Even our celebration day is preceded by our memorial day for those who fell in defense of our state and were victims of terror.

Looking into the mirror, Israel’s reflection shows many reasons to be proud. In 56 years, we became a thriving, pluralist democracy; the one nation in the Middle East where its citizens, Jews and Arabs alike, have the right to liberty and freedom.

In 56 years, Israel has entered the forefront of innovation in agriculture, medicine, science and technology. America’s own Christopher Reeve recently traveled to Israel in order to study the path-breaking Israeli medical technology that could one day help him walk, saying “Israel is an extraordinary place, and is among the world leaders in scientific research.”

Along this path, the United States of America has stood beside Israel as a pillar of strength and solidarity. Together, we have forged an alliance based on the common values that both nations share: liberty, freedom, peace and democracy. Together we even reached the heavens, with the Columbia space shuttle. Together we mourn its tragic loss.

Israel has shown its dedication to peace with its neighbors. Last month, we marked the 25th anniversary of our peace agreement with Egypt. Next year, we will celebrate a decade of peace with Jordan. We have sought peace with our Palestinian neighbors and this coming year shall be no different.

But our reflection in the mirror is combined with grief and frustration. After three-and-a-half years of terror and almost 1,000 Israeli dead, we realize that no matter how much we work for peace, we do not yet have a committed Palestinian partner. Israel has been left no choice but to move unilaterally. It is the duty and responsibility of all governments to take measures that provide security and stability for their citizens. This year we realized that it is not a matter of accepting the Palestinian desire to have a state – because we have done so. Nor is it because of our unwillingness to make painful concessions for peace – because we have done so in the past and are prepared to do so in the future. It is because we are lacking Palestinian leadership that is committed to stop terror and to build peace.

In his recent visit to Washington, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon introduced the groundbreaking Disengagement Plan. This initiative rests on unilateral withdrawal, and removal of Israeli settlements and military installations from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. In addition, the construction of the anti-terrorist fence will be accelerated, as its completion is essential to assure the security of the citizens of Israel. President Bush rightly termed this new initiative both “bold and historic” and stated that the plan can make an important contribution to peace. There is no breakthrough without a risk, but we are willing to take it.

Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank will be painful. Almost 8,000 Israelis must leave their homes, where they raised their children for three decades. But, this removal of Israeli presence will reduce friction with Palestinian civil society, creating new opportunities for peace.

In the absence of a partner, we have no choice but to take unilateral measures to assure our security. We remain fully committed to the U.S.-backed Road Map for peace, knowing that in the long run, peace will be achieved around the negotiating table. We take the necessary steps for peace. What about the Palestinians? The Palestinians can write their ticket for a prosperous future, as the burden for peace now rests on their shoulders.

As we celebrate Israel’s 56th anniversary, being so proud of our achievements, we will do whatever we can to fulfill our dream for peace. I hope that next year the emerging opportunity for peace will be taken.

(Originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle)