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Hebron aflame over pig slur

Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, acted yesterday to defuse an insult to Islam which threatened to provoke a new round of violence between angry Palestinians and Israeli troops in Hebron.

A leaflet distributed in the West Bank town on Saturday depicted a pig wearing an Arab kefiyeh (head-dress) and inscribed with the name Muhammad. It was shown writing in the Koran. An Israeli magistrate yesterday remanded a Jewish woman, Tatyana Susnik, 25, on suspicion of handing out copies of the drawing. They were found on her after she was arrested for allegedly stoning Arab vehicles and shops.

Riots broke out in Hebron as the story spread. Young Palestinians pelted Israeli soldiers with stones and petrol bombs on the border between the Arab and Jewish quarters of the overwhelmingly Muslim town, the burial place of their common ancestor, Abraham. A member of the Palestinian parliament, Abbas Zaki, said: "This deed will not go unanswered."

Mr Netanyahu responded in a speech to an international Jewish audience by condemning the leaflet as "abominable and despicable." In a phone call to the Mayor of Hebron, Mustafa Natshe, he added: "This runs counter to our outlook as Jews, and to the respect and appreciation that we have for the Islamic religion and for its founder, Muhammad." The Jewish settler leadership also repudiated the leaflet. Mr Natshe said he was reassured by the call. "I I hope that he will do his best to ensure that such a thing will not be repeated."

The leaflet surfaced less than 24 hours after the Israeli right was stunned to hear that one of its most vociferous champions, Ariel Sharon, had held secret talks with Yasser Arafat's deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, to explore prospects for a permanent solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Sharon," said the political correspondent Shimon Shiffer in Yediot Aharonot, "has recognised the reality created by the Oslo agreements. The patron of the Jewish settlements has proved he too is prepared to talk with the Palestinian leadership."

In the short term, the news has made it harder for Mr Netanyahu to complete a cabinet reshuffle precipitated by the resignation this month of his Finance Minister, Dan Meridor. Mr Sharon, front-runner for the vacant portfolio, had demanded he be co-opted to the three-man "kitchen cabinet", which oversees the peace process.

The Foreign and Defence ministers, David Levy and Yitzhak Mordechai, feared this would erode their own influence. Although Mr Sharon had cleared the meeting with Mr Netanyahu, the other ministers learned of it for the first time from television. It stiffened their resistance.

Mr Levy, who controls a crucial five seats in the coalition, yesterday cancelled a meeting with the Prime Minister that was meant to clear the air. As a result, Mr Netanyahu may not be able to meet his own deadline and announce the reshuffle today. Until then, his government remains paralysed.