Israeli leader offers views on borders

Olmert hints at more pullbacks in West Bank, keeping territory near boundary with Jordan

February 08, 2006|By KEN ELLINGWOOD | KEN ELLINGWOOD,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM -- Israel's interim prime minister, Ehud Olmert, laid out his vision yesterday for the country's future borders, suggesting that Israel should leave more areas of the West Bank but keep some major settlement blocs and territory near the boundary with Jordan.

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

While 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 recent election victory of Hamas in Palestinian elections late last month adds another element of uncertainty to Israeli-Palestinian relations.

"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 keep the main settlement blocs. But the borders of which we are thinking are not those in which Israel exists today."

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 leading to negotiations over an end to the conflict with the Palestinians and creation of an independent 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 bloc near Jerusalem, and the large Ariel community near Tel Aviv. That view is in line with past 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.

The television interview was Olmert's latest effort to step out of Sharon's shadow and craft his own image as Israel's leader. He has been given generally high marks for taking over Sharon's duties with grace and authority. But the task before him is suddenly vastly more complicated after Hamas' stunning triumph in Palestinian parliamentary elections Jan. 25.

The Hamas win adds a large and unexpected element to the Israeli campaign and could affect the fortunes of the Kadima movement Olmert now heads as its candidate for prime minister.

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

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

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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