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Netanyahu Cancels Palestinian-Only Bus Plan Just Before Scheduled Start

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Another item now about Israelis and Palestinians - a pilot program that would have effectively kept West Bank Palestinians off the buses that Jewish settlers ride to and from Israel proper. It was supposed to start today. Supporters saw it as a security measure. Critics called it an apartheid measure. It was barely under way when it was surprisingly canceled. How surprisingly? Well, reporter Lahav Harkov of the English-language Jerusalem Post was there when a deputy defense minister was speaking in the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, about this program. Lahav Harkov, what happened?

LAHAV HARKOV: Well, he was in the middle of giving a speech - this is Eli Ben-Dahan, the deputy defense minister. He was giving a speech in defense of the program in response to a query about it. And all of a sudden one of the other parliamentarians from Meretz, which is a far-left party, got up and said hey, it was canceled. And he was just surprised. And he said I'll admit, I was surprised nobody told me. I had no idea it was canceled. And you have to really feel for the guy because he got up to defend the program that was canceled only minutes before.

SIEGEL: Well, what led Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to pull the plug on this separate buses idea at the last minute?

HARKOV: Well, technically, it wasn't Netanyahu's plan. It was the defense minister's plan, but he pulled the plug on the defense minister's plan. And I think that it was a combination of international pressure and internal pressure that was coming from both the left wing and from the right wing in Israel. There were some on the far right who supported it, but I would say that the more mainstream right, including some settlers and settler groups, did not support the plan.

SIEGEL: Yeah, the complaints from Palestinians and from the Israeli left aren't very surprising. But there were comments from Reuven Rivlin, who is a man of the political right. He holds the largely honorific but sometimes pretty important symbolic post of Israeli president. He spoke out about this. What did Rivlin say about it?

HARKOV: Well, Rivlin said that it was completely wrong, not just wrong for Israel's image, but it's wrong morally. And, you know, Rivlin is somebody who opposes creating a Palestinian state. He's for a one-state solution. He's for absorbing the Palestinians in the state of Israel. And I think that the message that he sends out, more than any other as president, is one of coexistence; is one that Jews and Arabs both live in this land and we have to have a future together and we have to tolerate each other and treat each other better. And so he continued along those lines in his message about this program, which de facto would separate, you know, Israelis and Palestinians on buses, saying that if we're all living in this land together, you know, we can't just separate each other like that.

SIEGEL: This is a case of Palestinians who have jobs in Israel going home in the same bus on the West Bank as settlers. How common is that degree of closeness between settlers and their Palestinian neighbors? I thought the highways even were separated on the West Bank.

HARKOV: Well, it's interesting. There are highways that Israelis can't go on, but there aren't really highways that Palestinians can't go on. So the separation is usually the opposite of what people might think it would be. As far as the degree of closeness is concerned, it varies. Most of the Palestinians who come into Israel to work are construction workers and other kinds of maintenance workers in Israeli communities and so they do see each other. But in the West Bank itself, Israelis and Palestinians live in separate towns, so I would say it varies.

SIEGEL: The defense minister was under some pressure from some settlers to do something like this - segregate passengers on the buses - and settlers are powerfully represented in the current government. Do you think this idea will rise again before long?

HARKOV: Well, I think there are definitely some people who are supporting it and pushing it, even people within the Likud Party.

SIEGEL: That's the party of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.

HARKOV: Yes, and within the Bayit Hayehudi Party, which is to the right of the Likud and purports to represent settlers. I think that the idea might rise again as far as politicians talking about it. I don't think that, you know, after canceling it so swiftly Netanyahu will allow it to actually be put into place.

SIEGEL: Lahav Harkov, thanks for talking with us about it.

HARKOV: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Lahav Harkov spoke with us from Tel Aviv. She is the Knesset correspondent for The Jerusalem Post. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.