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Olmert to Seek W. Bank Pullout After Election
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Interim Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert plans a unilateral withdrawal from some settlements in the occupied West Bank if he wins a March 28 general election, Israeli officials said Sunday.

But under the four-year plan, which Olmert will propose to the United States, evacuated settlers would be relocated to major settlement blocs, and Israel would not withdraw militarily from the land as it did last year from the Gaza Strip.

With the Islamist militant group Hamas set to form the next Palestinian Government, Olmert hopes to win US backing for his go-it-alone approach. Both Israel and the United States say they will not negotiate with Hamas, whose charter calls for the Jewish state's destruction.

"Without a Palestinian partner, Israel needs to take the initiative itself," said Avi Dichter, a security adviser to Olmert who is seen as a possible future defence minister.

The move would cement Israeli control over the most heavily populated settlements in the West Bank, where Israel is building a barrier it describes as a means to stop suicide bombers and Palestinians call a land grab.

"It will only add to complications, this would mean dictation rather than negotiations," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

"Let them withdraw," said Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas' choice for Palestinian prime minister. "We will make the authority stronger on every inch of liberated land knowing that the borders and rights of the Palestinian people are known and will not change."

Hamas wants to replace all of the current state of Israel, including the occupied territories, with an Islamic state.

Dichter said Olmert would start immediately after the election to take steps to remove some isolated settlements from land Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War.

But Olmert has made clear he will not give up the two biggest Jewish settlements, Maale Adumim and Ariel, as well as the Gush Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem. He also said he could not give up the Jordan Valley to the east for strategic reasons.

Olmert has long promoted the idea of a West Bank pullout and of setting permanent borders for the Jewish state, but the plan floated on yesterday gave more details than in the past.

Surveys show most Israelis would favor such a withdrawal and the release of details could help strengthen Olmert's Kadima party, which has lost some of its big lead in opinion polls.

But Jewish nationalists are furious at the prospect of giving up West Bank land they see as a biblical birthright. The World Court says all the settlements Israel has built on occupied land are illegal. Israel disputes this.

The main settler council, known as YESHA, accused Olmert of kowtowing to the leaders of Hamas. "Olmert will do the work for them and get rid of Jews," it said in a statement.

Unlike the Gaza pullout, "it will not be a military disengagement," Dichter told Israel Radio. "All these territories, these Israeli settlements, will remain in the hands of the Israel Defence Forces and the security services."

Dichter said Israeli forces would remain in these areas "until the Palestinian Authority will be a partner" that Israel can negotiate with.

(China Daily March 6, 2006)


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