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Premier optimistic on peace, economy on Rosh Hashanah eve

JERUSALEM, Sept. 22 (JTA) – Despite gloomy headlines about Israeli-Palestinian relations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is optimistic about Israel’s future. In his annual pre-Rosh Hashanah meeting with correspondents from the American Jewish media, the premier downplayed the badly frayed peace process, focusing instead on Israel’s economic strengths, particularly in the technological arena. Noting that Israel is poised to become “ one of the wealthiest societies in the world,” Netanyahu exuded confidence during the Sept. 18 meeting, saying that despite the current difficulties, peace with both the Palestinians and the Syrians would be achieved. Referring to Israel as a second Silicon Valley, the prime minister said the country’s high-tech industries have benefited from the influx of experts from the former Soviet Union and from research projects carried out by the Israel Defense Force. With more than 3,000 high-tech firms operating in Israel, Netanyahu suggested that Diaspora Jews send their children to Israel to study the advanced computer technologies. He capped his optimistic evaluation of Israel’s economic prospects by predicting that within 10 years, “We will see Jews immigrating to Israel from countries like Argentina, Britain and America to improve their standard of living.” He also suggested that the Israeli stock market is undervalued because of the region’s tense political climate. “If I can send a message to Jewish leaders abroad, I would tell them: `Don’t wait. Now is the time to invest money in Israel. You will make a lot of money.’ ” Netanyahu brushed aside the tensions existing within Israeli society, particularly those dealing with the religious pluralism issue, which has created strains between the country’s Orthodox and non-Orthodox streams. While conceding that rifts within Israeli society were “too high,” he stressed that “the difference between us and our neighbors is much higher than our internal discussions.” Turning to the peace process, Netanyahu downplayed the recent freeze in Israeli-Palestinian relations, saying that the two sides had arrived at the “end game” of the Oslo process, which he said was naturally more difficult than the beginning. Netanyahu described the Arab-Israeli conflict as part of a much broader confrontation between the Middle East and Western civilization. “We will achieve peace with the Palestinians, the Syrians and Lebanon,” said Netanyahu, adding that it would “not be a Western-style peace, because we are not dealing with Western-oriented neighbors.” “If we understood this,” he added, “we would be less tense.” The real danger, he said, comes from Iran, which “poses the biggest threat to peace.” Netanyahu’s comments reflected the view among Israeli intelligence experts that Iran will have the ability to launch long-range missiles by next year and that it will possess nuclear armaments within three to five years. Netanyahu shares the belief of some Western experts that the recently elected president of Iran, Mohammad Khatami, has yet to prove that he would bring a change in Iran. “Iran is the only country on the face of the earth that still calls for the destruction of the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said. His response to one reporter’s question was particularly sharp. Asked about his pre-election promise that he would serve as prime minister of all the people, including those who did not vote for him, Netanyahu said, “I certainly view myself as premier of all the people. “If part of the people do not accept me, it’s their problem.”