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Friday, February 06, 2009

Israeli settlers want government tough on Arabs

By Andrew Hammond

ARIEL/SALFIT, West Bank (Reuters) - Israelis in the biggest settlement in the occupied West Bank say they will vote for right-wingers vowing a tough line with Palestinians on defending Jewish settlements and halting militant attacks.

They may well get one -- polls forecast a win for opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday as well as a strong showing for his rightist former aide Avigdor Lieberman. Netanyahu is a former prime minister whose vision of peace talks has focused on shoring up the Palestinian economy rather than a separate state.

"We hope Netanyahu will win," said Dina Timshin, a supermarket manager in Ariel, a Jewish settlement around 20,000 in the heart of the West Bank. "The world likes the Arabs, the whole world is protecting the Arabs."

International pressure helped bring an end to a 22-day air, land and sea offensive by Israel on the Gaza Strip last month.

Many of Ariel's Russian-speaking majority support Lieberman, a fellow immigrant from the former Soviet Union. His Yisrael Beitenu (Our Home is Israel) party is dominated by Russian-speakers with little patience for Arab grievances.

"Netanhayu is just about money. Lieberman will be like Stalin in dealing with the Arabs," said Ira Isacov, a shop worker who came to Israel 14 years ago. "Stalin, Lenin and Lieberman -- they are strong men. Netanyahu's weak."

Lieberman wants to pass a law that would require Israeli citizens to sign a "pledge of allegiance to the Jewish state" and deny the right to vote or to hold public office if they refuse. He also talks of "transfer" of some Arab towns to a Palestinian state and annexation of West Bank settlements.

Political analysts have attributed Lieberman's growing popularity to many Israelis' fears that a Palestinian state in the West Bank would be taken over by Hamas Islamists.

The group seized the Gaza Strip from forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007, two years after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pulled out troops and settlers from the territory. Israel said it launched last month's offensive to quell Hamas rocket fire from Gaza.

SETTLEMENT DISPUTE

Russian and Hebrew posters for Yisrael Beiteinu far outnumbered those of his rivals on walls inside the prim, hilltop city, a pioneer of the settler movement set up in 1978 on land many Israelis consider a biblical birthright.

Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. In talks with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Israel has insisted that Ariel and other major settlements should be part of Israel, though it has offered some other land in compensation.

Differences over settlements, deemed illegal by the World Court and by Israel's allies, have hampered the negotiations.

"Lieberman says the truth to our faces," said Haim Dhen, a cafe owner of Moroccan origin who moved to Ariel 10 years ago for the healthy mountain air and cheaper housing.

Dhen said he feared a future Israeli government would give up even on Ariel: "We think Ariel will be lost. Sharon gave away Gaza and now there are rockets on Ashkelon and Ashdod. If they give anything now to Abbas there will be rockets on Tel Aviv."

The afternoon call to prayer in Palestinian towns down the mountain wafts over the settlement with the heavy mist.

The Palestinians who live there were nonplussed by the prospect of a Netanyahu-led government. They said they wanted freedom of movement to revive economic life but were skeptical of Netanyahu's talk of Palestinian economic zones, his priority for the West Bank rather than creating a Palestinian state.
"We have slow death here, it's nonsense. In the end he will become convinced of the two-state solution," said Mustafa Shaaban, a local government employee in Salfit, where army watch towers monitor the town and roads are rundown and full of holes.

(Editing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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