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Vice Premier and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon issued a statement last night clarifying his criticism earlier in the week of "the elites" and the Peace Now movement. His latest remarks come after a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kirya defense compound in Tel Aviv.

At the end of the discussion, Ya'alon said that he "recognized the importance of democratic discourse and respecting other opinions."

After the hour-long meeting in which Netanyahu objected to Ya'alon's statements to Likud's Jewish Leadership Movement faction, the two discussed various policy issues. Ya'alon made clear his points of disagreement with the prime minister.

Netanyahu urged Ya'alon to release a statement saying he backed the prime minister and government policy. Netanyahu personally approved the statement and said he considered the matter closed.

Ya'alon told Netanyahu that as a member of the cabinet and vice premier, he is "a full partner to the formulation of policy and bears collective responsibility for it." Ya'alon also said he had not intended to criticize government policy or Netanyahu personally, and that "if things were interpreted differently, I regret it."

Ya'alon's earlier remarks, which were broadcast on Channel 2 on Wednesday night, roused a storm of protest.

Yaron called "the elites" and Peace Now "a virus" and said that when he was in the army, he used to say that "the politicians brought the dove of peace and the army had to clean up after it."

After the private meeting, the two joined discussions of Israel's key forum of six top cabinet ministers, ahead of Netanyahu's meeting with U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell next Wednesday in London.

Ya'alon's associates said the meeting with Netanyahu had been a good one, but that he stood behind his statements to the Jewish Leadership Movement.

Peace Now secretary general Yariv Oppenheimer said yesterday that Ya'alon's clarifications were "lip service only."