As vote nears, Olmert acts forcefully to define himself


JERUSALEM -- In the two weeks remaining before Israeli elections for a new parliament and prime minister, the central figure in the campaign does not speak or appear in person on any stage.

Ariel Sharon, founder of the front-running party, Kadima, remains unconscious in a Jerusalem hospital two months after suffering a stroke. But his photo is often the backdrop when acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the party's new head, speaks.

In Kadima's television ads on Olmert's behalf, Sharon's image flashes on the screen as war hero, farmer and statesman.

But in recent days Olmert has taken steps to define his candidacy, bringing his name and image into focus.

Israeli forces' raid on a Palestinian jail in Jericho Tuesday helped Olmert demonstrate his military capabilities, analysts say. And his detailed plans to evacuate thousands of settlers from the West Bank and define Israel's permanent borders by 2010 show his willingness to compromise and seek a permanent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"The public likes leaders who show diplomatic moderation and military toughness, who return land and kill Arabs," political commentator Yossi Verter wrote this week in the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz. "Sharon followed the rule during his five-year reign, and his heir-apparent, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, will do the same."

Much of the attention in this campaign, however, is on Olmert's withdrawal plans. In interviews with Israeli newspapers, Olmert has sketched out his plan to evacuate thousands of settlers from the West Bank while allowing the major settlement blocs Ma'aleh Adumim, Ariel and Gush Etzion to grow.

Under his plan, Israel would maintain control of the Jordan Valley and East Jerusalem and its holy sites, although he would consider giving up some of the city's Arab neighborhoods.

Olmert said that if the new Hamas-led Palestinian government does not recognize Israel, disarm its militants and renounce violence, Israel will move ahead with his plan to set its borders.

His blueprint follows the path blazed by Sharon, who ordered settlements in the Gaza Strip dismantled last year.

Unlike Sharon, who was always purposefully vague about whether he would support future withdrawals, Olmert has offered voters the specifics of what to expect if Kadima wins the election.

Olmert's announcement about the West Bank is likely to raise the stakes in what has been a lackluster campaign season with few of the bruising political battles of previous elections.

Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud Party, which opposes dismantling settlements in the West Bank, has said that the March 28 election should be considered a national referendum on Olmert's pullout plan.

Amir Peretz, leader of the center-left Labor Party, has said that unlike Olmert, he would aggressively pursue negotiations with the Palestinians and would act alone only if all other options were exhausted.

The Palestinians oppose any unilateral moves by Israel. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and his party, Fatah, have been open to negotiations, but the newly elected Hamas leadership has refused to recognize or talk with Israel.

"We will always prefer an agreement," Olmert told the Jerusalem Post. "But if this turns out to be impossible, we will have to weight our next steps. In the final analysis, my intention is that, within four years, we will arrive at Israel's permanent borders, according to which we will completely separate from the majority of the Palestinian population, and preserve a large and stable Jewish majority in Israel."

If voters begin to see this election as a referendum on an evacuation from the West Bank, it will reshape the battle lines of the election, analysts say.

Netanyahu, known as "Bibi," is strongly opposed to any withdrawals from the West Bank, arguing that they would embolden Hamas. He is hoping that Olmert's announcement will drive voters from Kadima to Likud.

Polls, however, suggest that the majority of Israelis are willing to pull out of the West Bank if it secures the Jewish state.

"For Bibi and Olmert, this has become a very significant event," said Peter Medding, a political scientist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "The moment Bibi turns it into a referendum, it becomes a referendum, and if Olmert wins, the right wing are much weaker than they would have been otherwise."

Opponents of last year's pullout of 9,000 settlers from Gaza and the West Bank complained that Sharon never held a referendum to let the public decide on dismantling the settlements.

If Olmert wins this election, Likud and other right-wing parties supporting the settlements will have trouble arguing that the Israeli people have not had their say, Medding said.

"It's a gamble on Olmert's part to come out so openly," Medding said, adding, "If it succeeds, it strengthens him enormously."

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