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      Deputy PM Yaalon: "Skullcaps are a Non-Issue"

      Deputy PM and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Yaalon said the preoccupation with new appointees' religiousness is wrong.
      By Gabe Kahn.
      First Publish: 3/30/2011, 6:57 PM / Last Update: 3/30/2011, 7:36 PM

      "The freeze [on Jewish building in Judea and Samaria] was a mistake," Minister Moshe Yaalon told Israel LIVE in a candid interview on Tuesday. "We will work to continue building Judea and Samaria and approve plans."

      Yaalon, Israel's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Strategic Affairs, fielded questions from online users, which were fed live to the Internet via the My Israel Facebook page. Topics ranged from Yaalon's experiences as IDF chief of staff to regional security, politics, diplomatic realities for Israel, settlement in Judea and Samaria, Gilad Shalit, the Bedouin takeover in some southern areas, whether he was cleaning for Passover ("Yes!"), and other topics.

      During the interview Yaalon protested the press's preoccupation with the fact that the new Shin Bet chief, Yoram Cohen, wears the skullcap favored by religious Jews: "I think wearing a skullcap is a non-starter as an issue. Unfortunately, it was also raised during the appointment of Yaakov Amidror. It really does not matter."

      He noted with some amusement that some are asking whether religious security officials would answer their phone on the Sabbath. "There are religious army officers and soldiers at all levels," he said, citing a famous precept in Jewish Law, "the saving of a life overrides the Sabbath."

      Yaalon added, "the question of political opinions isn't really relevant. The IDF and Shin Bet are government bodies and people know how to make the distinction between their political opinions - as you know, my positions have not compromised my service - and professional opinions."

      About the challenges facing Cohen, Yaalon said the Shin Bet's prime challenge is preventing terrorism. "The achievements of the IDF and Shin Bet are not always obvious to the public, and Yoram Cohen will have to continue to lead and ensure the Shin Bet stays on the cutting cutting edge," he opined, adding, "There are also counter-espionage efforts, and Jewish organizations that operate outside the law. I think Yoram know to lead the Shin Bet."

      "As long as Gilad Shalit is in captivity we have not completed our task," Yaalon said in response to numerous questions about the chances of mounting a rescue operation to free kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. "The Israeli government is responsible for extracting him and I hope for an opportunity to rescue him."

      "The question raised in public debate," Yaalon continued. "Is whether you exchange a thousand terrorists for one soldier? This is not simple. We are stuck. Hamas insists on 1,000, but in our experience this will bring the murder of more Israelis. Do we release prisoners knowing hundreds of Israelis will be murdered?... there is an concern over encouraging more kidnappings, and an aspect of deterrence to consider. This is not a simple issue that we are debating it but we have a clear policy on the matter. The Prime Minister set conditions and Hamas rejected them."

      When asked whether Israel will create a more austere environment for terror prisoners held in Israeli jails due to Hamas' refusal to allow the Red Cross to verify Gilad Shalit's status and conditions, Yaalon said, "We are doing so, but some things are better left unsaid."

      "We, as a government, did not care which of the groups was firing the rockets," Yaalon said of the escalation of rocket and mortar attacks on Israel's southern cities. "Hamas is responsible for the escalation, the firing at Israel. Hamas demurred after our strong reactions and worked to calm the situation. This way our deterrence is maintained."

      "The claim that settlements are an obstacle to peace," Yaalon said of the popular land-for-peace paradigm, "is primarily a problem rooted in our domestic discourse. Of course the world is going to follow us. It cannot be that Arabs can walk and live freely where they choose while Jews are restricted from some parts of Israel."

      As for the issue of construction in Judea and Samaria, Yaalon said, "The freeze was a mistake. I said it before and when the idea of extending the freeze was raised I vehemently opposed it. We are working to continue building the West Bank, and to approve urban construction plans in Judea and Samaria. With the latter there is some controversy. The authority lies in the hands of the Defense Minister, but there is talk of establishing a committee to oversee it."

      "I strongly condemn these actions," Yaalon said of alleged 'price-tag' operations. "Its like shooting the State of Israel in the foot and the settlement enterprise in the head. The world is watching us. We are a nation with a rule of law and we cannot afford to have independent guerrillas running around. We have authority here and are armed with dual weapons, Law and the IDF. The price for these operations is paid by Israel and the settlements."

      On Iran, Ya'alon said, "Iran is a threat to regional stability and is pulling strings behind the scenes. They are provoking Shi'ite leaders to challenge Arab regimes and stir the pot in Afghanistan and Iraq. The problem is not just the Iranian nuclear program, but the Iranian regime's behavior. Iran should not have a military nuclear capability. This regime should not continue its terrorist activities without paying a price."