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Rosh Hashanah Interview: Premier Affirms Commitment to Peace, Religious Status Quo

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to act forcefully to stamp out violence and the threat of violence in Israeli society.

“I will simply not tolerate a climate of lawlessness, a climate of threat,” the premier said this week in a pre-Rosh Hashanah interview with representatives of the American Jewish media.

He was referring to the current wave of anonymous threats against Israel’s Chief Justice Aharon Barak and other Supreme Court justices.

The court’s policy of “judicial activism” is at the center of a major political controversy in Israel and has been the subject of recent vitriolic criticism in fervently Orthodox newspapers.

In the wake of the controversy, some have warned against the potential for violence, comparing the current war of words to the climate that preceded the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November.

But Netanyahu said it would be wrong to characterize Israel as “a violent society.”

The divisions within Israel and within Jewry “are not stronger than the forces that unite us,” said the prime minister, who is scheduled to come to the United States next week.

On the peace process, Netanyahu said during Monday’s wide-ranging interview that contacts with the Palestinians were continuing and should lead to a meeting “this week or next” of the Israeli-Palestinian steering committee, which oversees implementation of the self-rule accords.

Last week the Israeli and Palestinian heads of the steering committee, former Israel Defense Force Chief of Staff Dan Shomron and Palestinian Interior Minister Saeb Erekat, met to prepare for the full committee meeting.

However, the premier would not confirm widespread media speculation that his own first meeting with Palestinian Authority head Yasser Arafat was imminent.

Top aides to Netanyahu and to Arafat were conducting marathon meetings this week to reach understandings that would allow the two leaders to meet.

Indeed, the expectation that such a meeting was now imminent gave rise to heightened criticism of the prime minister from hard-liners inside his own Likud Party — among them former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

Netanyahu frequently criticized his Labor predecessors for meeting with Arafat. And since his election in May, the prime minister has said he would only meet with Arafat if Israel’s security depended on it.

In his meeting with the Jewish journalists, Netanyahu sought to deflect the criticism from his own party.

He reiterated that his election platform recognizes the Israeli-Palestinian accords, subject to considerations of security and reciprocity. That platform, he said, genuinely reflected his intentions during his election campaign and remained his policy now that he had won office.

“We meant what we said,” Netanyahu said. “The Palestinians — and some of the Jews — have got to understand that.”

When peace negotiations with the Palestinians resume, Netanyahu said, both sides will come to the table with lists of the other’s alleged violations of the existing agreements.

The Israeli list, he said, would include concerns about Palestinian violations of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem; the Palestinians’ failure, in the government’s view, to abrogate fully the Palestine National Covenant and replace it with another document; and violations involving inflammatory rhetoric, such as Arafat’s exhortations at the end of last week to Palestinians to hold a demonstrative mass prayer at the Al-Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu pointed out that Arafat’s call had remained largely unanswered; only the regular total of some 20,000 worshipers showed up for the Friday prayers.

Nevertheless, for Arafat to have issued the call represented a violation of the self-rule accords, Netanyahu said.

On the controversial issue of Hebron, the premier said he proposed to carry out the redeployment agreement that was concluded between the Palestinians and Israel, with “necessary modifications.”

Netanyahu’s decision on Hebron, which is the last major Palestinian city still under Israeli control, is being widely seen as an indication of his commitment to carry out the accords with the Palestinians.

In discussing Hebron on Monday, Netanyahu pointed out that the previous Labor government had failed to carry out the redeployment in Hebron on schedule – – for security reasons.

An estimated 450 Jews — and some 100,000 Palestinians — live in the Hebron area.

Israel’s interests in Hebron are twofold, the premier said: to ensure the “safety and well being” of the Jewish community there, and to ensure “control and access to the holy places.”

Given that Hebron was “a junction of two of the most radical communities” of both Jews and Palestinians, he said, it was “in the Palestinian interest as well as in the Israeli interest” that security arrangements be put in place in Hebron that would avoid any danger of violent conflagration in the future.

Turning to issues of the “permanent-status” talks with the Palestinians, Netanyahu said he felt that there was “a much wider consensus in Israel” regarding the shape of a final settlement than was often thought.

Israelis who say they favor Palestinian independence nevertheless insist that a future Palestinian state must have no army, no capacity to affect control of Israeli air space, no capacity to drain Israel’s water sources and no unfettered right to admit Palestinians who wish to return to the territory.

“Perhaps [the differences] are semantic,” Netanyahu added. “The government has got to get down to the delineation of what we call the autonomous entity.”

In considering such an entity, he said, “Should it [include] the largely barren areas of Judea and Samaria?”

Israel, he added, had “security and other” interests in these areas.

On the Syrian track, the prime minister said the United States was “trying to facilitate the resumption” of the stalled peace talks, but so far Syria had “shown no interest.”

Netanyahu insisted that he would not undertake prior to renewed talks any commitment to withdraw Israeli forces from the Golan — just as Israel was not laying down any preconditions to Syria.

When the talks with Syria resume, Israel is expected to put forward its proposal to negotiate an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon first and Syria, presumably, would put forward its demand that Israel withdraw from all the Golan.

Choosing his words carefully, Netanyahu said that while he was not prepared to say he would consider any withdrawal, “I am prepared to have discussions on the full range of matters.”

On the attacks against the Supreme Court and the general exacerbation of religious-secular tensions in Israel, Netanyahu said his position was one of faithful adherence to the unwritten “status quo” accord that regulates state- synagogue relations.

This accord, which has traditionally given the Orthodox establishment control over religious affairs and institutions, has been in existence for 50 years, Netanyahu said, adding that he was not about to change it.

At the same time, changes have been “evolving slowly,” he said, noting that “you can have films on Saturday in one part of a town and streets closed elsewhere, depending on demographic shifts.”

Any attempt to force a “reordering” of society along new religious-secular lines was bound to lead to “extreme consequences,” Netanyahu said, adding that he would oppose such moves.

The prime minister said that it was legitimate to argue for or against the extent of the Supreme Court’s powers vis-a-vis the Knesset — as long as such arguments were conducted “through legitimate means.”

But he said he had given firm orders to Public Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani to act forcefully against threats of violence against the judges.

The prime minister sidestepped a question on whether he would oppose demands to change how Supreme Court justices are appointed.

The religious parties, and some voices on the secular right, have called for a new system in order to ensure a broader spectrum of ideological opinions on the bench.

They maintain that the court’s current composition is predominantly liberal and secular.

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