- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2006

TEL AVIV — Israel’s parliament confirmed a center-left coalition led by the Kadima party yesterday as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert listed strict conditions for peace negotiations with the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority that suggested Israel will prefer new unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank.

Before the 120-member Knesset voted 65-49 in favor of the government, Mr. Olmert called on the Palestinian Authority to initiate “fundamental” changes in its behavior.

Israel is ready to wait for such a change, but will prepare itself to leave portions of the West Bank where Jewish presence is thin and fix its borders unilaterally, the prime minister said.

Calling the remote Jewish settlements in the West Bank a “danger” to Israeli democracy, Mr. Olmert said Israel’s future borders would look significantly different from the way they do today.

“Partition of the land in order to ensure a Jewish majority is a life savior for Zionism,” said Mr. Olmert as he became the twelfth Israeli prime minister on the day after the country celebrated its 58th independence day.

Mr. Olmert is the first Israeli leader to be elected on a pledge to evacuate the Jewish settlements established since 1967, and he insisted before parliament that this figured as the central mandate of the government.

Some of his remarks seemed tailored to pre-empt settler criticism that awaits him when the government finally details its plan to evacuate settlements with tens of thousands of Jewish residents. Critics of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip called him a “dictator” who had betrayed his constituency.

“The debates will be difficult,” Mr. Olmert said. “But it’s about time that we conducted the debates, as difficult as they will be, without incitement and without undermining the legitimacy of the government.”

Mr. Olmert’s coalition controls 67 parliamentary seats and consists of the Labor Party, the Pensioners Party and the Sephardic religious Shas party.

The top Cabinet members include Tzipi Livni, the acting foreign minister; Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz as defense minister; and Avraham Hirchson heading the treasury.

The prime minister said he aspires to widen the government and is expected to court an ultrareligious party and the far-left Meretz party.

Implementation of Mr. Olmert’s withdrawal won’t go into action for two more years, the Ha’aretz newspaper reported. That’s because Mr. Olmert will be immersed in drawing up the withdrawal plan and gaining U.S. support for his plan to leave certain settlements while building up three “settlement blocs.”

Prior to the withdrawal, Israel also must speed up completion of its West Bank separation barrier, which is likely to indicate the contour of the upcoming disengagement and Israel’s future border with the West Bank.

Another challenge facing the government will be financing the costs of compensation and relocation for the settlers, which could run into the tens of billions of dollars.

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