Rivlin Dedicates Independence Torch to Settlers Amid Criticism

Leftist politicians accuse Knesset Speaker of exploiting state ceremony; PM Sharon: We will be pulling out of Gaza Strip this time next year.

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Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) expressed support for settlers at an Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony Monday night, despite criticism that a state event was not the appropriate place to make such comments.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he thought his plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip would be underway at this time next year. Speaking on a special Independence Day program on Channel One television Monday night, he said, "I believe that next Independence Day we will be in the middle of the disengagement plan from Gaza."

Rivlin dedicated the torch he lit at the annual ceremony on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem to "the pioneers who go before the camp, those who settle the land of our fathers and redeem its earth, from Hanita [in the Western Galilee] to Kfar Darom [in the Gaza Strip], and from Negba [in the south] to Kiryat Arba, which is [biblically called] Hebron [in the West Bank]."

He also dedicated the torch to the Knesset, which he called "the temple of democracy," to the "heroes of the security forces," and to Jerusalem, "our holy, eternal city, and the heart of the nation."

In a short speech Rivlin made before lighting the torch, he hinted at the plan to disengage from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, which he opposes.

Using Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl's well-known statement, "If you will it, it is no dream," as a theme, Rivlin said: "When we wanted, the dream has become reality... And when we wanted, when we really wanted, the land was conquered and lay at our feet, and no one stood in our way. But the story has not ended. Also today, 100 years after Herzl's death and in the 56th year of Israel's independence, nothing can be taken for granted."

But it was the planned remarks supporting settlers that provoked a deluge of condemnations, with disengagement proponents accusing Rivlin of exploiting the occasion for political purposes.

Rivlin said before the ceremony that he saw nothing political or provocative about the text and had no intention of changing it.

Labor MK Ophir Pines-Paz demanded prior to the torch-lighting that Rivlin remove the offending sentence, saying, "It is forbidden to use a state ceremony that belongs to everyone to wage a battle within the Likud."

Head of the Yahad (formally Meretz) Knesset faction, MK Zahava Gal-On, said Sunday that exploiting the state ceremony as a platform in the debate over the settlements degrades the service, and Shinui faction chair MK Reshef Chen said, "It is sad to see Rivlin crossing the line between his official state position and his political position."

MK Matan Vilnai (Labor) also attacked Rivlin's decision, saying Independence Day was a day to unite the country, not divide it.

Deputy Trade and Industry Minister Michael Ratzon (Likud), however, backed Rivlin's decision, saying a state ceremony was "precisely the place to strengthen the pioneers."

Rivlin launches indirect attack on Sharon Rivlin launched an indirect attack on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday, during a speech at a ceremony remembering Israel's fallen in the West Bank settlement bloc of Gush Etzion.

Rivlin said Israel "will continue to hold on to the soil in this good land, even if a weariness is emanating from the edges of the camp, and even if [the weariness] is eroding the leadership of those who advocated the vision of the land for years but have recently loosened their grip."

Rivlin added: "We will go on living. We will stand strong against those who seek to harm us, those who seek to rout us and those, heaven forbid, who would have us retreat."

Rivlin told the settlers from Gush Etzion and nearby Efrat who were attending the ceremony, "We will draw strength and courage and power from those who fought and fell to protect this holy piece of land, and we will chose life."

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