ACRE, Israel (Reuters) - The Israeli prime minister-designate visited the ancient port of Acre on Friday to call for calm between Jews and Arabs after two nights of clashes which revived fears that go to the heart of Israel’s identity.
Tzipi Livni, who is trying to form a new government following the resignation of premier Ehud Olmert, urged people from both the town’s communities not to let anger turn into the violence that left shops and cars damaged and several people injured over Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews.
Politicians on either side of the ethnic and religious divide in what a majority insists must be a fundamentally Jewish state hurled accusations of “pogroms” and complained about the police. Livni said she expected leaders to set an example of harmony.
“This is a kind of watershed,” she said in Acre, where Arabs and Jews live in separate neighborhoods.
“The only message to be relayed today -- and this is for the national leadership, the local leadership, everyone -- from now on, we take ourselves in hand, embrace each other, together.”
Livni, who is foreign minister, also said that all Israeli citizens should respect Yom Kippur and that the rites of silence and prayer of what is also known as the Day of Atonement were essential elements of the character of the state of Israel.
Trouble started in Acre after dark on Wednesday when an Arab drove into a Jewish district, disturbing the start of 24 hours in which Jews abstain from using cars and other machinery. As word spread from mosque loudspeakers of Jewish youths stoning the car, Arab crowds responded angrily.
The powerful Jewish ultra-Orthodox parties with which Livni is negotiating to form a new coalition would expect her to defend religious observance on Yom Kippur.
However, her insistence that Jewish faith lies at the heart of the state is also a reason why many of its 1.5 million Arabs -- one Israeli citizen in five -- feel alienated.
“The pogrom in Acre marks the start of an intifada in the heart of the country,” right-wing lawmaker Avigdor Lieberman said, employing the terms for attacks on Jews in Tsarist Russia and for Palestinian revolts against Israeli occupation.
Arab legislator Ahmed Tibi fired back: “What happened in Acre is a pogrom by Jewish hooligans against Arab residents.”
Inside the town of 46,000, once the Crusader capital of the Holy Land, people sounded anxious to put trouble behind them:
“Everybody is shocked because nothing like this has ever happened,” said Walla Zachnini, a Jew. “We are one people.”
Arab Jad Kamal said: “That’s the secret of this town, people living together for 60, 70, 80 years. We’re all brothers.”
Nonetheless, hundreds of police were on hand and the mayor canceled an annual festival scheduled for next week.
Israeli and Palestinian leaders have agreed in principle on a two-state solution in which the 4 million Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza would eventually have a state.
However, as U.S.-sponsored negotiations -- led by Livni on the Israeli side -- appear to be petering out, there is again more talk of a single state incorporating Jews and Arabs.
Additional reporting by Joseph Nasr and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Giles Elgood