Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Tuesday that Israel plans to separate from most of the Palestinians in the West Bank and this would require withdrawing from some of the territory.
It was the first time Olmert, who took over from ailing Ariel Sharon a month ago, has spelled out his thinking for future policy if he wins March 28 elections. The Kadima Party that he inherited from Sharon, who is comatose after a stroke, is far ahead in the polls.
“We will disengage from most of the Palestinian population that lives in Judea and Samaria,” Olmert told Israel’s Channel 2 TV, using the biblical names for the West Bank. “That will obligate us to leave territories under Israeli control today.”
Under questioning, Olmert listed four West Bank areas Israel would keep under his vision: Maaleh Adumim, a settlement of 30,000 next to Jerusalem; Gush Etzion, a bloc of settlements south of Jerusalem; Ariel, a settlement of 18,000 deep in the West Bank; and the Jordan River valley.
About three-fourths of Israel’s 244,000 West Bank settlers live in the areas Olmert delineated in the TV interview, according to government figures and estimates by the Peace Now settlement watchdog group.
Olmert did not mention the string of small settlements in the Jordan valley. Instead, he said, “It is impossible to abandon control of the eastern border of Israel,” he said, without referring to Israeli sovereignty or the string of small settlements there.
Militants, soldiers killed
Violence continued Tuesday. Two Palestinian militants were killed in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza and another died in a shootout with Israeli soldiers in the West Bank.
The Israeli military said it targeted a car in Gaza City carrying Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades militants involved in producing rockets to be fired at Israel.
Earlier, Israeli artillery and aircraft pounded northern Gaza, where militants have been launching rockets. Three landed in Israel on Tuesday, causing some damage.
In the Gaza City airstrike Tuesday afternoon, the two militants were killed instantly and five bystanders, including two children, were wounded.
Al Aqsa identified the dead as senior commanders and threatened revenge against Israel. Since Thursday, Israel has killed nine Gaza militants in airstrikes.
In the West Bank, Israeli forces killed a wanted Islamic Jihad militant during an arrest raid in Nablus. Two Israeli soldiers also were wounded in a shootout, an army spokesman said.
Militant groups threatened revenge against Israel for the Gaza and West Bank raids.
Jerusalem's future debated
Olmert told Channel 2 that Israel would retain a “united Jerusalem,” a term understood as encompassing the eastern section claimed by the Palestinians for the capital of the state they hope to create. On Tuesday, Olmert toured construction sites of the separation barrier Israel is building in the Jerusalem area and said its completion is a top priority.
The barrier will extend along the length of the West Bank, dipping into the territory to encircle the settlements Olmert listed. Israel says it is necessary to keep suicide bombers out, but Palestinians denounce it as a land grab.
'A permanent border'
Olmert also hinted that Israel might carry out further unilateral withdrawals from lands the Palestinians want for a state, like its summer pullout from the Gaza Strip — especially now that Hamas militants sworn to Israel’s destruction have swept Palestinian elections.
“We are going toward separation from the Palestinians,” he said. “We are going toward determining a permanent border for the state of Israel.”
Negotiations aimed at a peace treaty and a permanent border between Israel and the West Bank have been frozen for years. The Palestinians claim the whole territory, but Israel says the border is defined only by a cease-fire line and is negotiable.
Olmert’s remarks sharpened Kadima’s position on the central issue facing Israeli voters in March 28 elections — the country’s final borders. Sharon formed the Kadima Party in November after despairing of bringing his longtime Likud Party around to his view that territorial concessions to the Palestinians were inevitable.
The party has held a strong lead in the polls, even after Sharon suffered a debilitating Jan. 4 stroke that elevated Olmert to interim prime minister.
Also Monday, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Israel would draw its final borders within the next two years.
Mofaz, who followed Sharon out of the hard-line Likud into Kadima, also hinted the new party would carry out further unilateral withdrawals, and asserted that Israel’s final borders would be drawn in the next two years.
“If we won’t be able to reach agreed-upon borders, we will operate in a different way, which it is not appropriate to detail now,” Mofaz said during a tour Monday of the West Bank. “We don’t need to wait for someone else to impose our fate.”
Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank in the summer, destroying 25 veteran settlements, in a unilateral move Sharon planned while Yasser Arafat was still alive. Israel was unable to deal with his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, and is even less likely to forge a deal following the landslide parliamentary election victory last month by the Islamic militant group Hamas.