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Scale of redeployment angers Knesset members, Palestinians

JERUSALEM, March 9 (JTA) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing criticism on two fronts after his Cabinet approved the turnover of 9 percent of rural West Bank areas to the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian officials said too little of the West Bank was being transferred to them and criticized Israel for unilaterally determining the extent of the transfer. Meanwhile, members of Netanyahu’s governing coalition said too much was being given away and issued warnings they would topple his government. After the Cabinet’s 10-7 vote last Friday, eight Knesset members threatened to vote no-confidence in the government if Netanyahu did not change his policies. A Knesset vote on a no-confidence motion could come later this week after Netanyahu returns from a visit to Russia. The coalition members were angered by the inclusion of 2 percent of land defined as Area C, under sole Israeli control, as part of the first of three further redeployments from rural West Bank areas called for in the Hebron accord. They demanded assurances from Netanyahu for some of their own key interests, including no further delays for construction projects in Jerusalem and the territories. The coalition holds 66 seats in the 120-member Parliament; two seats are held by the far-right Moledet Party, which is not a coalition member. Netanyahu held a series of meetings with the Knesset members Sunday, hoping to persuade them not to quit the coalition. His only apparent success was with Deputy Education Minister Moshe Peled of the Tsomet Party. Peled said after the meeting that Netanyahu’s promise to build in the territories had convinced him to retract his threat. But other legislators remained unmoved. Knesset member Michael Kleiner of the Gesher Party said he wanted to see Netanyahu act on his promises. “It was all very nice, and he said many things that are pleasant to hear,” Kleiner told Israel Radio. “But what I want to see are bulldozers. We want to see results.” If the conciliatory approach fails, Netanyahu indicated that he also was ready to play hardball. The Israeli daily Ha’aretz quoted the prime minister as saying that if he had no other choice, he would turn to the Labor Party to discuss forming a national unity government. But opposition leader Shimon Peres said Labor would not join a unity government. He said the idea would not even be considered until police concluded their investigation of alleged wrongdoing among government officials in the short-lived appointment of Jerusalem attorney Roni Bar-On as attorney general earlier this year. “Until this issue ends, there is absolutely nothing to talk about,” Peres told Israel Radio. Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai said Sunday that he expected implementation of the Cabinet decision on redeployment to take place later this week. Palestinian officials conveyed their anger over the scope of the transfer during a meeting Sunday night between Foreign Minister David Levy and Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Abu-Mazen, who serves as second-in-command to Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat. Levy later told reporters that the Palestinian officials had expressed their protest and asked for time to consult with Arafat before deciding whether to accept the Israeli plan. Levy dismissed their demands as unrealistic, saying, “They expected a redeployment of more than 20 percent, in order to get to the third redeployment, where 90 percent of the territory is in their hands.” Abu-Mazen did not take part in Levy’s news conference.