After a weekend of mutual recriminations between supporters and opponents, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu weighed in yesterday on the battle over plans for Israeli repertory theater companies to perform in the new cultural center in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. Netanyahu condemned the 53 actors, playwrights and directors who signed a petition vowing not to perform in the city, telling cabinet ministers that the state should not fund cultural institutions trying to foment a "boycott from within."

Netanyahu drew a comparison between what he called the "international deligitimization assault" on Israel and the boycott proposed by those who had signed the petition. "The last thing we need during this assault is an internal attempt to wage boycotts," he said. "I don't want to minimize the right of every individual, and every artist, to hold political views. He may express his viewpoint, but we in the government must not fund boycotts of Israeli citizens nor support them in any way."

Yesterday four actors with Tel Aviv's Cameri Theater - Irit Kaplan, Dror Keren, Ola Schur-Selektar and Alon Dahan - removed their names from the petition and said they would perform in Ariel if asked.

Kaplan told Haaretz yesterday, "I removed my signature halfheartedly, because I began having qualms about my obligations to a public institution." Keren went one step further, sending a letter to Cameri head Noam Semel condemning the petition, while affirming that he would rather not perform in Ariel. "I never, repeat, never, signed a petition calling for boycotting someone, and I never will. We stopped doing 'boycotts' in third grade. I don't believe in boycotts or sweeping condemnations," Keren said.

'We will perform in Ariel, period'

Semel said that Cameri's contract with the Ariel cultural center stipulated that in the event an actor refused to perform the theater would either try to replace them or cancel the performance. In the event of cancelation, Cameri would not be liable for damages. "We inserted that clause on the assumption that it's possible that one or two actors would refuse. This is, after all, a unique performance," Semel said.

He added that of the Cameri's 150 actors, musicians and other theater professionals, only four or five had signed the petition, and that should issues arise with actors refusing to perform, "We'll deal with the problem by either trying to persuade him or her to perform, or by finding a replacement. The Cameri will appear in Ariel - period."

The director of Tel Aviv's Habima National Theater, Odelia Friedman, said that only one actor in her organization had signed the petition, but that he had not told the theater management that he refused to perform in Ariel. Should one or more actors refuse to perform in the city, she said, "We'll deal with it. I've submitted a list of questions to the theater's legal advisers, and all of the legal ramifications have been examined. As early as Wednesday, Habima said unequivocally that it would perform in Ariel."

Shmulik Yifrah, director of the Be'er Sheva Theatre, said, "We, as a theater, will go anywhere we're invited. If we're invited to Ramallah or Nablus we'd be happy to appear there." Yifrah said that until now no actors had come forth to say they were unwilling to perform in Ariel.

Meretz and Peace Now are planning to demonstrate today in solidarity with the signatories to the petition. On Thursday the Knesset Education Committee will hold a special session on the issue.

Meretz chairmain MK Haim Oron said yesterday that the committee must be convened immediately to discuss "the wild, crass tongue-lashing unleashed at theater actors who refuse to perform in settlements."