September 4, 2006

Olmert says West Bank pullback plan on hold

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on
Monday he had put his plan for an Israeli pullback from parts
of the occupied West Bank on hold following a war in which Arab
militants rained rockets on the Jewish state.

"I have no doubt that something has changed in the order of
priorities I had believed to be correct," Olmert told
parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, according
to an official who regularly briefs reporters on its

"At this moment, the issue of the realignment is not in the
order of priorities as it was two months ago," Olmert said in
his first appearance before the panel since 34 days of fighting
with the Lebanese Hizbollah group ended in an August 14

But he stopped short of declaring dead a plan that was the
centerpiece of a manifesto that won him election in March.

Under the proposal, Israel would remove dozens of isolated
Jewish settlements in the West Bank and bolster major enclaves
it wants to keep, thereby setting a permanent border by 2010.

But resurgent violence in Gaza, which Israel evacuated last
year, plus the Lebanon war appear to have dampened public
support for territorial withdrawals.

Hizbollah's firing of nearly 4,000 rockets at northern
Israel from Lebanon during the recent conflict raised concern
among Israelis that a West Bank pullback could leave central
cities vulnerable to similar attacks by Palestinian militants.

An Olmert aide said last month the prime minister's more
pressing priority now was leading economic recovery in the
north and repairing damage caused by the cross-border strikes.


Rightist opponents of the Gaza pullout have warned that
another unilateral withdrawal would only embolden Palestinian
militants who frequently launch rockets at southern Israel.

Palestinians are also cool to the West Bank plan, saying it
would deny them a viable state.

"We must deal with the Palestinian issue but consider other
ways to do so," Olmert said, repeating a pledge to meet with
President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah faction was defeated by
the Islamic militant group Hamas in a January general election.

Retreat from the West Bank proposal appeared to leave
Olmert without a defining political platform save for an
oft-repeated promise to attract investment for northern Israel.

But putting West Bank moves on the back burner could open
the way for Olmert, head of the centrist Kadima party, to try
to form alliances with right-wing factions and bolster a
government under fire over its conduct of the Lebanon war.

Senior cabinet ministers from his main coalition partner,
centre-left Labor led by Defense Minister Amir Peretz, have
threatened to vote down the 2007 state budget over cutbacks
aimed at covering Lebanon war costs.

In a step likely to win favor with the Israeli right, a
government agency published notices on Monday requesting bids
to construct 690 new homes in two West Bank settlements.

The projects, the largest announced in the occupied
territory since Olmert took office, fly in the face of an
obligation under a U.S.-backed peace "road map" to halt such

Palestinians also have failed to carry out their
commitments under the peace plan.

The World Court has branded all Jewish settlements on
occupied land as illegal. Israel disputes this. Some 240,000
Jewish settlers and 2.4 million Palestinians live in the West
Bank, a territory Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.