- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2006

TEL AVIV — Israel must abandon more Jewish settlements in the West Bank and unilaterally fix its final borders in response to Hamas’ rise to power, a leading member of Israel’s governing Kadima party said yesterday.

The proposed evacuation is a departure from assertions made by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon before he suffered a stroke in January and sharpens the contours of Israel’s parliamentary campaign as it heads into its final weeks.

Former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter, a leading Kadima candidate, said the election of Hamas in Palestinian elections on Jan. 25 left Israel without a credible peace partner and with no choice, except to determine a boundary on its own.

In contrast with the Gaza withdrawal, however, Israel’s military would remain in control of the evacuated West Bank territory after the settlers leave, Mr. Dichter said. He said the pullout and drawing of borders would be spread over about four years.

“When we’re talking about disengagement from [the West Bank], whenever it is, it will be a civilian disengagement only. It won’t be a military disengagement,” he told Israel Radio. “The move will start to take shape immediately with the establishment of a Kadima-led government.”

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert addressed the plan in general terms yesterday to a Washington conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Israel will not wait for an agreement with the Palestinians to determine its borders, Mr. Olmert said in the satellite speech, according to the Associated Press.

Israel “will take the initiative if we will find that the Palestinians are not ready, are not prepared, or not mature enough to be able to make the necessary adjustments within themselves in order to be ready for this challenge.”

Mr. Dichter’s comments, which immediately drew fire from Likud on the right and others on the left, followed two recent opinion polls showing an erosion of support for Kadima. Founded by Mr. Sharon after his unilateral evacuation from Gaza split his Likud party, front-runner Kadima has run a colorless campaign until now.

“They’ve been running a very general campaign without many specifics; that could be why they started to lose altitude,” said Bar Ilan University political science professor Sam Lehman Wilzig.

“They have a dilemma here: On the one hand there are questions of what they really stand for. … The problem is that they might lose more voters if they’re too specific.”

After the Gaza disengagement, Mr. Sharon insisted that Israel would focus on the “road map” peace plan, which seeks to nudge Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table through mutual confidence-building measures. But experts said Washington would likely back another Israeli unilateral move.

“In the absence of a peace process, disengagement is preferable to the status quo or annexation,” said Scott Lasensky, a fellow at the U.S. Institute for Peace.

“The great enigma of the first disengagement was that the U.S., Israel and outside parties couldn’t find a way to connect it to the road map. If Israel is going to do it again, the U.S. and the international community have a lot to learn about the failure in 2005.”

Mr. Dichter said the plan calls for Israel to strengthen the main West Bank settlement blocs close to Israel, as it abandons more-remote settlements.

Likud politicians quickly criticized the proposal, saying another settlement evacuation would reward Hamas while breaking with Mr. Sharon’s promise of no more unilateral pullbacks.

Kadima “is going the opposite direction of Sharon,” said Likud legislator Yuval Steinitz. “Instead of dismantling the Hamas government, they are going to give it another moral victory and more territory to build their military garrisons.”

The suggestion of a new evacuation in the West Bank also draws a potential contrast with Labor, which is concerned that a new unilateral step is liable to hurt any prospects of strengthening Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas against Hamas.

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