Olmert's Kadima pledges quick West Bank pullout

Israeli troops would remain after some Jewish settlements close

March 06, 2006|By KEN ELLINGWOOD | KEN ELLINGWOOD,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM -- Israel will move immediately to abandon more Jewish settlements in the West Bank if Ehud Olmert, the interim prime minister, and his Kadima party win election this month, a party leader said yesterday.

Israeli troops would remain after civilians were removed from isolated Jewish settlements and resettled, said Avi Dichter, a former chief of the Shin Bet security service and now a leading member of Kadima.

Dichter's comments to Israel Radio reinforced expectations that a Kadima government without Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would accelerate the unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, which Sharon began last summer, along with a pullout from the Gaza Strip.

Sharon, who formed the centrist Kadima movement in November after hard-liners in his former Likud Party rebelled over the pullout, had not laid out details of further pullouts when he suffered a stroke in January that left him in a coma in a Jerusalem hospital.

Dichter's description of planned withdrawals was more detailed than comments made previously by Olmert. Dichter said a future pullout would be a "civilian disengagement" and that the Israeli military would remain in control of abandoned areas.

"The areas evacuated by the civilians will remain in the control of the [army] in order to continue foiling terror in every refugee camp, neighborhood and casbah until a Palestinian partner emerges," Dichter said.

"In the absence of a Palestinian [peace] partner, Israel will have to determine its final borders by itself, and that will involve the consolidation of smaller settlements into settlement blocs," Dichter said.

The process of setting final borders would take about four years, he said.

Olmert will seek crucial U.S. backing for the four-year plan, Dichter added.

Olmert, who has said he wants to oversee the drawing of permanent borders, favors keeping three main settlement blocs and a strip of territory along the border with Jordan.

Dichter did not say which settlements would be next to go.

A senior official close to Olmert, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that such a disengagement was an option, but policy would be determined only after the election.

The Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot reported that the targeted settlements were believed to include several of the most ideologically hard-line communities in the West Bank, including Elon Moreh, Yitzhar and Tapuah.

Residents of the evacuated settlements would be moved into the three main West Bank settlement areas - Ariel, Maale Adumim and the Gush Etzion bloc - or be absorbed into four smaller clusters, the newspaper said.

Heading into March 28 elections, Kadima is leading by about a 2-to-1 margin over the conservative Likud and left-leaning Labor parties, although it has slipped a bit in recent opinion polls. Most analysts predict that Olmert, who accompanied Sharon in bolting from Likud, will be in charge of forming the next government.

Withdrawals last summer from the West Bank and Gaza enjoyed the backing of most Israelis, polls showed, and many people joined Kadima because they approved of Sharon's unilateral approach.

But Likud, now led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, contends that the Gaza pullout helped the militant Islamic group Hamas capture the Palestinian parliamentary elections in January. Netanyahu says further pullbacks would reward violence.

Jewish settler leaders have vowed to fight any evacuation plan. After a largely passive resistance in Gaza, settlers clashed fiercely with security forces who dismantled nine homes in an unauthorized West Bank settlement outpost in January. More than 200 people, most of them security troops, were injured.

Benny Katzover, head of the hard-line Elon Moreh settlement, said further withdrawals would not be as peaceful as those in Gaza.

"There is no reason why we shouldn't be beaten and suffer ... and stop this process with our bodies," Katzover told Israel's Army Radio.

Critics on the left, such as Labor's leader, Amir Peretz, say unilateral actions by Israel hurt progress toward peace by brushing aside moderates such as Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas' Fatah movement, once dominant in Palestinian politics, lost the legislative vote.

Hamas has called on Fatah to join a national-unity government, but Fatah leaders have turned aside the invitations. Fatah's 135-member Revolutionary Council met yesterday in the West Bank city of Ramallah to plan how to revamp the party but made no decision on whether to join a Hamas government.

Palestinians led by Hamas denounced the Israeli plan.

"This is another indication of Israeli policy which ignores the existence of the Palestinian people," said lawmaker Salah Bardawil, a spokesman for the Hamas parliamentary faction.

"Once again, Israel is threatening to adopt unilateral measures that vindicate Hamas' view that there is no partner in Israel who seeks real peace, and that Israel used negotiations in previous years as a pretext to ignore and stall the granting of Palestinian rights," Bardawil said.

Nearly two years ago, President Bush said a final peace agreement would have to recognize "demographic realities" on the ground, meaning that Israel would not be expected to withdraw completely to the borders it held before capturing the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war because of the large settlement blocs built in the meantime.

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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