Israel eyes broad West Bank pullout

Interim PM Ehud Olmert plans to remove more settlements if his Kadima Party wins March 28 vote.

Defining his new centrist party's position amid dwindling numbers in the polls, acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert plans to unilaterally evacuate some West Bank settlements and set Israel's final borders within the next four years if he wins national elections later this month.

Mr. Olmert's move to delineate a clearer platform for the newly formed Kadima (Forward) Party comes at a time when voters have been scrutinizing the movement, set up late last fall by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who remains comatose after a debilitating stroke.

With elections just over three weeks away, many Israelis have questioned how Olmert can fill Mr. Sharon's shoes and what the untested Kadima Party really stands for in a time of diminished prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

Olmert, a lawyer and former mayor of Jerusalem, tried to provide an answer Sunday that seemed to mirror the unilateralist vision espoused by Sharon, who has long charged that Israel does not have an appropriate Palestinian peace partner.

As part of a four-year plan that Olmert will propose to the US for its support, Israel would withdraw from many smaller settlements - at least 17 in the first phase - in the West Bank and move most of the people in them to larger blocks that Israel expects to annex. Under the plan, as articulated by a top security adviser to Olmert, only settlers would be withdrawn, not the Israeli army - a departure from the approach of the disengagement plan carried out last August.

"It will be only a civilian disengagement, not a military disengagement," said Avi Dichter, the security adviser, in an interview with Israel Radio.

In January, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict took several radical and unexpected turns: first with Sharon's failing health, and then with the election of Hamas, an Islamic militant and social movement sworn to Israel's destruction. At a meeting Friday in Moscow, Hamas leaders reiterated their position against recognizing Israel's right to exist.

Israel must respond to Hamas's rise to power by abandoning more Jewish settlements in the West Bank and unilaterally fixing its final borders on its own, said Mr. Dichter.

The suggestion of a new unilateral evacuation from the occupied West Bank is a departure from Sharon's assertions before his stroke in January, and could fine-tune the debate as Israel's parliamentary campaign heads into its final weeks.

Kadima's major competition comes from two ends of the spectrum: the right-wing Likud party, which Sharon and Olmert quit last year, and the leftist Labor Party, which fathered the Oslo Peace Accords and supports dialogue.

Dichter said that in the absence of a credible Palestinian peace partner, Israel has no other choice but to determine a boundary on its own. The prospect of more Israeli unilateral moves would cast a shadow over the moribund US-sponsored "road map" peace initiative. "When we're talking about disengagement from Judea and Samaria, whenever it is, it will be a civilian disengagement only," he said. "The move will start to take shape immediately with the establishment of a Kadima-led government."

The comments, which drew fire from Likud and Labor, come after a pair of opinion polls indicated an erosion of support for Kadima. Founded by Sharon after his unilateral evacuation from Gaza split Likud, front-running Kadima has run a colorless campaign up until now, analysts say.

"They've been running a very general campaign without many specifics, that could be why they started to lose latitude," says Sam Lehman Wilzig, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

"They have a dilemma here: on the one hand there are questions of what they really stand for and, 'Where's the beef?' The problem is that they might lose more voters if they're too specific."

The gambit of running on another round of settlement evacuation is aimed at Israel's center-left, which believes in unilateral pullbacks even after Hamas won Palestinian elections, says Mr. Wilzig.

"I think it will go down in the center," he says. "Now that we have Hamas on the other side, the logic of a one-sided disengagement makes more sense on one hand. But the right wing can say, Why are you giving in now?"

Most of the ideological right, however, will not be voting for Olmert and Kadima anyway, but for far more nationalist parties.

Smadar Shamai, a young mother who lives in the West Bank settlement of Ofra, says she voted for Likud in the last elections. But disillusioned by the disengagement from Gaza and the violent evacuation of the Amona settlement outpost last month, she expects to vote for either the National Union or another far-right party, headed by settler-activist Baruch Marzel. "The disengagement is a symbol that this country has forgotten our values," she says. "My other thought is not to vote at all."

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