- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 10, 2005

JERUSALEM — Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday he is unsure the government will survive long past its pullout from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank this August — a development that would cloud efforts to restart the stalled peace process.

In an interview with The Washington Times, Mr. Olmert said the momentum for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations depends to a large extent on whether Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas can rein in militants and stop attacks on Israel following the withdrawal.

But even if the Palestinians can quiet the militants, the next move in the peace process is uncertain because of doubts about the future of Israel’s fragile ruling coalition.

“Leave aside the Palestinians; I don’t know if we’re going to have a government after the disengagement,” said Mr. Olmert, who heads Israel’s trade ministry and is considered a close ally of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Israel’s next general elections are scheduled for November 2006, and as time passes there will be increasing pressure on lawmakers to dissolve the parliament and hold an early vote, the minister said.

Mr. Olmert noted that Mr. Sharon’s largest coalition partner, the dovish Labor Party, may decide to part ways with Mr. Sharon’s Likud Party after the task of evacuating settlements is finished.

Next month, Labor is selecting a new chairman, and the leader could move the party into the opposition as a way to burnish its credentials for the elections.

Scott Lasensky, a Middle East specialist at the U.S. Institute for Peace, said Mr. Olmert “is pointing to something that is pretty likely. Over the last 10 years, the Palestinian issue has led to a shortened life expectancy for Israeli governments. By all indications, that trend is going to continue.”

For now, the disengagement remains the government’s top priority, according to the deputy prime minister. He called the Gaza withdrawal a “historic breakthrough” that has already paid dividends by helping to improve relations between Israel and Egypt.

Mr. Sharon yesterday announced a three-week delay in the pullout to avoid coinciding with a religious period of mourning preceding the Aug. 14 Jewish observance of the Tisha B’Av, marking the fall of the first and second biblical temples in Jerusalem.

Despite the postponement, executing the Gaza disengagement remains an issue on which Israel has staked its international credibility, Mr. Olmert said.

“We need to show the international community that we mean what we say when we say we’re going to dismantle settlements,” he said.

But, as if to highlight the deep ambivalence within the Likud Party over the disengagement, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom suggested yesterday that a Hamas victory in coming Palestinian legislative elections would justify a further postponement in the withdrawal.

Mr. Shalom argued that Israelis would not want to turn over the Gaza Strip to a Palestinian government led by Hamas.

Many have suggested that the divisions in Likud over the Gaza evacuation could split the country’s largest political party before the next election, throwing Mr. Sharon’s re-election into doubt.

A weekend opinion poll published in the Ma’ariv daily showed support for the evacuation dropping close to 50 percent from more than 60 percent.

The slip comes amid new rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip on Israeli settlements and a freeze by Israel of prisoner releases and of restoring Palestinian security authority in West Bank cities.

Mr. Olmert acknowledged that militant groups are exercising restraint and that the Palestinian Authority is making an effort — albeit not to Israel’s satisfaction — to hinder the gunmen.

Even the militias linked with Fatah, the party of Mr. Abbas, have made little progress toward disarming, the deputy prime minister said. “I don’t see anything encouraging.”

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