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Israeli Gov't Goes Ahead With Plan     03/20 06:04


   TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) -- A firebrand Israeli minister claimed there's "no 
such thing" as a Palestinian people as Israel's new coalition government, its 
most hard-line ever, plowed ahead on Monday with a part of its plan to overhaul 
the judiciary.

   Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition said it was pushing a key part 
of the overhaul -- which would give the coalition control over who becomes a 
justice or a judge -- before the parliament takes a monthlong holiday break 
next week.

   The development came a day after an Israeli and Palestinian delegation at a 
meeting in Egypt, mediated by Egyptian, Jordanian and U.S. officials, pledged 
to take steps to lower tensions roiling the region ahead of a sensitive holiday 

   It reflected the limited influence the Biden administration appears to have 
over Israel's new far-right government and raised questions about attempts to 
lower tensions, both inside Israel and with the Palestinians, ahead of a 
sensitive holiday season.

   As the negotiators were issuing a joint communique, Israeli Finance Minister 
Bezalel Smotrich delivered a speech in Paris saying the notion of a Palestinian 
people was artificial.

   "There is no such thing as a Palestinian nation. There is no Palestinian 
history. There is no Palestinian language," he said in France late Sunday. He 
spoke at a lectern draped with what appeared to be a map of Israel that 
included the occupied West Bank and parts of Jordan.

   The Palestinian Foreign Ministry called Smotrich's remarks "racist, fascist 
and extremist."

   A far-right settler leader who opposes Palestinian statehood, Smotrich has a 
history of offensive statements against the Palestinians. Last month, he called 
for the Palestinian town of Hawara in the West Bank to be "erased" after 
radical Jewish settlers rampaged through the town in response to a shooting 
attack that killed two Israelis. Smotrich later apologized after an 
international uproar.

   During Sunday's talks in Egypt, a Palestinian gunman carried out another 
shooting attack in Hawara, seriously wounding an Israeli man.

   The new violence, along with Smotrich's comments, illustrated the tough 
challenges that lie ahead in soothing tensions after a year of deadly violence 
in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. More than 200 Palestinians have been 
killed by Israeli fire in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and more than 40 
Israelis or foreigners have been killed in Palestinian attacks during that time.

   Sunday's summit was held ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which 
begins this week. The Jewish festival of Passover is set to take place in 
April, coinciding with Ramadan.

   The upcoming period is sensitive because large numbers of Jewish and Muslim 
faithful pour into Jerusalem's Old City, the emotional heart of the conflict 
and a flashpoint for violence, increasing friction points.

   Large numbers of Jews are also expected to visit a key Jerusalem holy site, 
known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount -- an 
act the Palestinians view as a provocation.

   Clashes at the site in 2021 helped trigger an 11-day war between Israel and 
Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip.

   The heightened tensions with the Palestinians coincide with mass 
demonstrations inside Israel against Netanyahu's plans to overhaul the judicial 
system. Opponents of the measure have carried out disruptive protests, and the 
debate has embroiled the country's military, where some reservists are refusing 
to show up for service. Netanyahu has rejected a compromise by Israel's 
figurehead president.

   During his call with Netanyahu, Biden appealed for caution, the White House 
said, "as a friend of Israel in the hopes that there can be a compromise 
formula found."

   The president "underscored his belief that democratic values have always 
been, and must remain, a hallmark of the U.S.-Israel relationship," the White 
House said, and added that "fundamental changes should be pursued with the 
broadest possible base of popular support."

   Netanyahu's government says the plan is meant to correct an imbalance that 
has given the courts too much power over the legislative process. Critics say 
the overhaul would upend the country's delicate system of checks and balances 
and push Israel toward authoritarianism. They also say Netanyahu could find an 
escape route from his corruption trial through the overhaul.

   The protests, along with the rising violence with the Palestinians, have 
posed a major challenge for the new government. So far this year, 85 
Palestinians have been killed, according to a tally by The Associated Press. 
Fourteen people in Israel, all but one of them civilians, have been killed in 
Palestinian attacks.

   Israel says most of those killed have been militants. But stone-throwing 
youths protesting the incursions and people not involved in the confrontations 
have also been killed.

   Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 
Mideast war. The Palestinians seek those territories for their future 
independent state.

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