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NETANYAHU: ISRAELI ARABS POSE DEMOGRAPHIC THREAT

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NETANYAHU: ISRAELI ARABS POSE DEMOGRAPHIC THREAT

"If there is a demographic problem, and there is, it is with the Israeli Arabs who will remain Israeli citizens," he said at the Herzliya conference.

The only answer, Netanyahu argued, lies in aliyah and developing the kind of economy that will encourage and support it.

In a sideswipe at Likud rival and Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who two weeks ago insisted that a unilateral withdrawal from most of the territories is essential to ensure Israel survives as a Jewish entity, Netanyahu attacked the culture of political despair that has led to multiplication of disconnected diplomatic ?solutions? adding that these plans only interfere ?with the prime minister's direction of policy."

?Trends are erratic," Netanyahu said. "They come and go, and are cast aside to be replaced by new trends. It's attractive to follow new trends. Right now, it's in fashion to say we are in despair and respond with a diplomatic plan. I refuse to be dragged into this fashion trend."

Calling on the crowd to "listen to what the Palestinians say in Jenin, not Geneva," Netanyahu said there currently is no Palestinian partner who has given up the goal of destroying Israel. He argued that a new Palestinian leadership could not prosper in a "poisonous Palestinian society, which creates battalions of suicide bombers."

Accusing the former Prime Minister of ?stoking the demographic phobia and hostility towards the Israeli Arab population,? Balad Party leader Jamal Zkhalka said Netanyahu?s statement ?legitimizes racism in the present, and transfer in the future.?

Labor faction whip Dalia Itzik, visiting China on a state visit with President Moshe Katsav called Netanyahu a "serial pyromaniac" who previously set off the social inferno between rich and poor, and is now "trying to ignite the national conflagration between Jews and Arabs," according to Ha?aretz.

Although in its early stages, Ha?artez columnist Yossi Verter observed Thursday morning, the battle for succession within the Likud is already in full swing, with each of the major contenders staking out distinctive diplomatic territory ahead of the widely anticipated policy speech of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also at the Herzliya Conference on Thursday.

Speaking also to Conference delegates on Wednesday. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom raised the possibility of returning to the negotiating table with Syria, following a recent statement by Syrian President Bashar Assad to The New York Times that he is ready to begin where talks left off with the government of Ehud Barak in 2000.

Should the road map fail and it becomes clear there is no one to talk to on the Palestinian side, Israel should turn around and explore the Syrian track, Shalom insisted, despite having good reason to question Assad?s sincerity.

"All positive declarations for peace are to be praised,? Shalom said. ?We should not push away a hand stretched out in peace, even if it is not done for the right reasons."

But the first item on the agenda of any negotiations, he added, will be terrorism.

Shalom, who also sees himself as a potential future leader of the Likud also distanced himself from Olmert, opposing any unilateral steps that had political implications as a ?prize to terrorism.?