- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2006

TEL AVIV — Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he plans to determine Israel’s borders within four years and start construction projects in the West Bank to forge a link between the Jewish settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim and Jerusalem.

The promise to determine Israel’s borders with the Palestinians is likely to require a second unilateral withdrawal in the West Bank in the absence of peace negotiations. The remarks, made in separate interviews to two Israeli newspapers less than three weeks before Israel’s general election, are the first confirmation by the acting prime minister of a plan to reduce Israel’s presence in the West Bank.

The barrier being built by Israel in the West Bank will eventually be converted into a political border — albeit with some modifications that will separate Israel from most of the Palestinian population, Mr. Olmert told the Ha’aretz newspaper.

The possibility of another unilateral disengagement has drawn criticism from the right-wing Likud Party, which warns that another pullback will strengthen the Hamas-led government. Likud campaign commercials airing yesterday said Mr. Olmert’s effort to create a permanent border would instead set up a “terror border” running just a few miles away from Israel’s international airport.

“Hamas is like a cancerous growth,” said Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu at a campaign rally, according to the online edition of the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot. “Today, we can stop it. After four years of Olmert, I don’t think we will be able to.”

The plan to build eastward from Jerusalem toward Ma’aleh Adumim, the largest Jewish settlement, is controversial because it could mean severing Palestinian areas of the West Bank at the belly. It also would also strengthen Israel’s hold over Jerusalem by isolating Palestinian residents living in the eastern part of the city.

However, the construction helps bolster Mr. Olmert’s promise to hold onto the major Israeli population centers that have been built in lands captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

“It is inconceivable that we would speak of Ma’aleh Adumim as a part of the state of Israel and leave it as an island or isolated enclave,” Mr. Olmert told Ha’aretz. “It’s completely clear that the link from Jerusalem will be a built up. In my view, there is an absolute consensus in Israel on this issue.”

But the United States has opposed the construction plan, arguing that it contradicts the “road map” peace plan by predetermining a final peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians.

Talk of drawing a permanent border within the next four years seemed to confirm comments a few days ago by Avi Dichter, a candidate in Mr. Olmert’s Kadima party and a former Shin Bet secret service chief, that Mr. Olmert planned new settlement evacuations.

According to recent public opinion polls, Kadima is forecast to win about 36 seats in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, far ahead of Labor, with about 19, and Likud, which is polling at 17. Mr. Olmert said on Wednesday that his party would form the next government and that the only question left to be decided by the vote is how dominant Kadima will be.

Both Palestinians and Israeli doves warned that the construction link to Ma’aleh Adumim and a new unilateral pullback are likely to undermine prospects for a negotiated settlement.

“We have been urging Mr. Olmert and the Israelis to abandon this unilateralism and dictation, and come back to the negotiations table. It will only add to the problems,” said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

“It will kill the viability of any [Palestinian] state. It will dictate the fate of Jerusalem, which means there is no chance for peace.”

In addition to Ma’aleh Adumim, Mr. Olmert said he wants to hold on to the northern West Bank settlement of Ariel, as well as the Etzion settlement bloc to the south of Jerusalem.

Stuart Tuttle, the press attache at the U.S. Embassy in Israel, said the United States expects Israel to honor its commitment under the road map, which includes a ban on settlement expansion.

“I hope that election declaration will remain on paper,” said Avshalom Vilan, a candidate from the left-wing party called Meretz, of Mr. Olmert’s plan to build in the West Bank. “The meaning of that move is the cutting of the Palestinian state. It’s a crazy move.”

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