Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Israeli Leader Outlines His Goals for Nation's Borders

By Ken Ellingwood
Los Angeles Times
February 8, 2006

JERUSALEM — Ehud Olmert, Israel's acting prime minister, laid out his vision Tuesday for the country's future borders, suggesting Israel should exit more areas of the West Bank but keep some major settlement blocks and territory near the boundary with Jordan.

The comments, made to Israel's Channel 2 in Olmert's first media interview since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a massive stroke Jan. 4, represented his most explicit remarks as interim leader on the nation's eventual borders.

Though the comments of the former Jerusalem mayor differed little from the approach set by Sharon, they take on added significance because Olmert now heads Sharon's party, which is leading in polls heading into March 28 national elections. And the stunning triumph by the militant group Hamas in Palestinian parliamentary elections Jan. 25 suddenly makes his task vastly more complicated.

"The direction is clear. We are heading toward a separation from the Palestinians. We are heading toward deciding on final borders for the state of Israel," Olmert said in the half-hour interview. "We will maintain the unity of Jerusalem. We will keep the main settlement blocks. But the borders of which we are thinking are not those in which Israel exists today."

Olmert has generally been given high marks for taking over with grace and authority from Sharon, who remains comatose in a Jerusalem hospital and is unlikely to return to politics. The television interview was his latest effort to step out of Sharon's shadow and craft his own image, reintroducing himself to Israelis and the world at an exceedingly delicate moment.

Olmert sidestepped the issue of whether he would push for additional unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank after Israel's pullout last summer from the Gaza Strip and four communities in the West Bank.

He expressed support for the U.S.-backed diplomatic blueprint known as the road map, a step-by-step plan for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and creation of a Palestinian state.

But in outlining possible future boundaries that would exclude much of the West Bank, Olmert left open at least the possibility of additional pullbacks by Israel.

Olmert said Israel should retain the Maale Adumim settlement and the Gush Etzion block near Jerusalem, and the large Ariel community near Tel Aviv. That view is in line with comments by Sharon and hews closely to Israel's position that the most populous settlements should remain in its hands.

Olmert said Israel could not cede control along the border with Jordan. He declined to elaborate.

Hamas' electoral win adds a large and unexpected element to the Israeli campaign and could affect the fortunes of the Kadima party, which Olmert heads as its candidate for prime minister.

Olmert, one of Sharon's closest confidants, joined the prime minister in the decision to bolt from the conservative Likud Party two months ago and form Kadima.

In his first weeks as acting prime minister, Olmert won praise for his tough response to disturbances by hard-line Jewish settlers who had resisted eviction from a market they inhabited in the West Bank town of Hebron. The standoff ended when the settlers agreed to leave after negotiations with authorities.

In harsh language, Olmert characterized the settlers as lawbreakers and ordered the army to come up with a plan for removing them and some two dozen illegal settlements around the West Bank.

Last week, he ordered authorities to empty part of a West Bank outpost called Amona, an action that quickly erupted into violence and injured more than 200 protesters, police and soldiers.

As head of Kadima, Olmert has expressed backing for the road map peace plan. Yet he and other party members have said Israel might have to withdraw on its own from more of the West Bank as a way to set borders they say will make the nation safer and protect its viability.

The unilateral approach has proved popular among Israelis and is a big reason why Kadima has scored well among centrist voters and holds a big lead in most polls. But the idea is suddenly more problematic, analysts say, because of concern that the evacuated areas would fall into the hands of Hamas, which is sworn to Israel's destruction and has carried out numerous suicide bombings.

It is up to Olmert to articulate the party's stance in the wake of the Hamas victory. He has moved deliberately so far, issuing a statement that Israel will not negotiate with a government that includes Hamas. But he was criticized for waiting a day before releasing an official response.

One of his chief election rivals, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has stepped up his attacks on last year's pullouts by Israel, saying they strengthened Hamas and contributed to its win at the polls.

Bigger tests lie ahead. Even voters who support a wider withdrawal from the West Bank are likely to judge Olmert on how well he handles the Hamas challenge. A jump in Palestinian violence against Israel would harm his prospects.

"If he is perceived as weakening or beginning to legitimize Hamas, he will lose many of his voters," said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a research institute in Jerusalem. "He's got to reassure his voters that he still has some of his old hawkish fire."

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