- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 11, 2006

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s far-reaching plan for a unilateral Israeli pullback from most of the West Bank is being questioned even within his own party now that the Gaza Strip, evacuated in August, has become a well-armed and aggressive enemy camp.

Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit on Monday became the first minister from Mr. Olmert’s own Kadima party to publicly oppose the plan, which he previously supported.

“In view of what’s happened in Gaza, the chances of implementing the plan are very slight,” Mr. Sheetrit said in a television interview. “I do not believe in unilateral disengagement.”

Hours earlier, Mr. Olmert expressed unreserved support for the plan at a meeting with the foreign press corps, citing the absence of a suitable political partner in the Palestinian camp with whom to negotiate. “I am absolutely determined to carry out the separation from the Palestinians and establish secure borders,” he said.

Early today, an Israeli air strike targeted the home of a Hamas activist in northern Gaza and killed seven persons, officials and residents said, while Israel expanded a two-week offensive in the region with an incursion farther south.

Palestinians said a high-level meeting of Hamas commanders was in progress at the residence in Gaza City just before the air strike. Nervous Hamas officials carefully inspected the bodies but refused to comment.

Under the Olmert proposal, Israel would begin in about a year to withdraw 60,000 to 70,000 settlers from about 90 percent of the West Bank, while reinforcing large settlement blocs in the area remaining under its control.

Israel would settle down behind this new border, delineated by the barrier being built between most of the West Bank and Israel, until a stable Palestinian government is in place to negotiate a final settlement.

The withdrawal from Gaza received broad public support, as did the West Bank plan until recently. But the use of Gaza as a base for daily rocketing of Israeli towns and the recent seizure of an Israeli soldier have prompted second thoughts. Rockets fired from the West Bank easily could hit Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

A poll released yesterday found that support for the plan had dropped to 38 percent while 49 percent opposed it, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni expressed caution about a West Bank pullback, sometimes called “convergence” or “realignment,” without rejecting the idea outright.

“If someone thought that convergence is a way of throwing the key over the fence and walking away while thinking that everything will be all right, that is not my way of thinking,” she said. “The convergence will not be like that.”

Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, a former head of the Shin Bet security service, said he favored withdrawal from the settlements but that the army would have to remain in the area “until a Palestinian entity is found that can take responsibility.”

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