Israel’s new government takes office Thursday, bringing incoming Prime Minister Ehud Olmert a step closer to implementing his plan of withdrawing from parts of the West Bank and drawing Israel’s borders by 2010.
The plan, which would leave Israel with three main blocs of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, is to be carried out unilaterally if the Hamas-led Palestinian Cabinet refuses to recognize Israel, accept past peace agreements and renounce violence — conditions Israel has set for talking to the militant Islamic group.
In a policy speech to parliament, Olmert said Thursday that Israel needed to rid itself of isolated West Bank settlements but would maintain control over the larger blocs forever.
He said he preferred to reach a deal with the Palestinians through negotiations based on the internationally backed “road map” peace plan. But if that failed, he said he would act unilaterally to create “desirable” borders that would be significantly different from the current ones.
Abbas: 'We are a partner'
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate leader from the Fatah Party, appealed to Olmert in an interview published Thursday to resume peace talks with him immediately.
“You have a serious partner. We are a partner for negotiations,” Abbas told the Israeli daily Maariv. “I have a mandate to reach an agreement with Ehud Olmert. We have the capability and we have the desire. We must not miss the opportunity.”
However, negotiations with the Palestinians appear unlikely to bear fruit as long as Hamas refuses to meet Israel’s conditions. Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas on Wednesday rejected Olmert’s unilateral plan.
“We are in favor of any Israeli withdrawal,” Haniyeh said. “If they are going to leave our land, we are not going to run after them and ask them to come back. This does not mean we are going to accept a de facto policy.”
Olmert’s centrist Kadima Party won a March election, but does not have enough seats in parliament to rule alone. His new coalition will include 67 of the 120 members of the Israeli parliament, and is to be sworn in Thursday evening after a debate and a vote of confidence.
Olmert has pledged to implement his so-called “convergence plan” within four years, but the inclusion of the hawkish, ultra-Orthodox Shas party in the coalition means the future prime minister could find himself with a thin majority in support of the pullout.
Shas will likely resign from the government once the issue of the withdrawal is brought to a vote in the Cabinet or parliament, said Hanan Crystal, a political analyst. But Olmert will still be able to get the plan passed because the dovish Meretz Party will support it and the Arab parties will abstain, giving him a 60-50 majority, he said.
Olmert told his incoming Cabinet on Thursday that he was still holding negotiations with other parties, including Meretz and the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party. “I hope that the government will be broadened,” he said.