JERUSALEM, Oct. 27 (JTA) — The Knesset opened its winter session this week with a stormy political debate — and a call for the prime minister’s resignation. The debate came amid a crisis over pending legislation on local religious councils and Jewish conversions performed in Israel that would codify Orthodox control over religious life here. On Monday, the Knesset Legislative Committee finalized a draft of the religious council bill to deny non-Orthodox representatives membership on local religious councils. It will next be presented to the Knesset for the first of three votes, known as readings, that are required before it can become law. But the pending legislation did not come up at Monday’s opening session. Instead, the debate centered on remarks that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made last week. At the opening of the Knesset session, opposition members waved placards reading “Bibi Is Dividing the Country” and “I Am a Proud Jew.” The opposition protests came after Netanyahu told a rabbi last week that left-wingers “have forgotten what it means to be Jewish.” Netanyahu made the remarks Oct. 21, when he visited the sukkah of religious leader Rabbi Yitzchak Kadouri to celebrate their birthdays, which fall on the same date. Netanyahu did not know that an Israel Radio microphone was taping his remarks. The microphone also recorded him saying that leftists “believe they can trust our security in the hands of the Arabs.” His remarks sparked a political furor, and on Monday he offered an apology, though he directed it toward Israeli soldiers and their parents who may have taken offense. “I was sorry for the distorted interpretation of my remarks,” he said, adding that he never intended “for someone to be hurt by the statements or construe them to mean I doubted their belonging to the people of Israel.” Netanyahu then turned on the opposition, accusing it of fueling ceaseless attacks on his government since he was elected a year and a half ago. But the opposition, led by the Labor Party, dismissed the prime minister’s remarks as more of his usual rhetoric and demanded his resignation. Labor Party leader Ehud Barak said the people of Israel “deserve a better leader.” “I call on the prime minister to look beyond personal considerations to acknowledge the public will and step down,” Barak said. “We deserve more.” Regarding the peace process with the Palestinians, Netanyahu reiterated the charge that the Palestinian Authority was still not fulfilling its commitments under the signed agreements. Instead, Netanyahu told the Knesset, the self-rule government continued to maintain a “revolving door policy” with Hamas prisoners. The prime minister demanded that the Palestinians do more to fight terrorism and declared that Israel would not hand over any more territory to the self-rule authority until it fulfills its commitments. On the issue of the continued Israeli presence in southern Lebanon, Netanyahu said the Israeli army could not withdraw from the security zone until Hezbollah units were dismantled and an agreement reached to preserve peace north of the Israeli border.
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