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Border Proposal Roils Preelection Waters in Israel

Acting prime minister says the Jewish state will draw its boundaries. The Likud and Labor parties oppose his plan, but for different reasons.

March 11, 2006|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — With Israeli elections less than three weeks away, a furor erupted Friday over acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's declaration that in the next four years Israel would draw its own borders, roughly following the route of a barrier being built in the West Bank.

Both right- and left-wing opponents expressed outrage over Olmert's plan, spelled out in interviews that appeared Friday in major Israeli newspapers.

The fate of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, home to about 250,000 Israelis, is a major issue in the campaign leading up to the March 28 elections.

Olmert's centrist Kadima movement leads each of his opponents in the right-leaning Likud Party and left-leaning Labor by about a 2-1 margin.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday March 27, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
West Bank: An article in the March 11 Section A incorrectly reported the Palestinian population of the West Bank as 3.2 million. The population numbers are heavily disputed, but the most generally accepted estimate is 2.3 million.

Olmert, who assumed the national leadership after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was incapacitated by a massive stroke two months ago, has said Israel will maintain its grip on some of the largest West Bank settlement blocks that lie close to the "Green Line," the armistice boundary in place at the end of the 1967 Middle East War.

But in the interviews, Olmert laid out the most detailed scenario yet of Israel's plans for the West Bank. The plans call for uprooting some Jewish settlements and rerouting the barrier to include other outposts.

"We will adjust the [barrier's] route either to the east or the west in accordance with internal Israeli agreement," Olmert told the Yediot Aharonot newspaper. "The fence ... will be the border line that will separate Israel and the Palestinians."

Speaking to the Maariv daily, he added, "At the end of this process, we will achieve a complete separation from the vast majority of the Palestinian population."

An estimated 3.2 million Palestinians live in the West Bank. The barrier, a patchwork of fences, concrete walls, watchtowers and patrol roads, has cut off tens of thousands of them from the rest of the territory.

In general, Israeli leftists oppose unilateral measures because they believe the border should be set through negotiations with the Palestinians.

At the same time, Olmert's right-wing opponents believe Israel should not cede territory without concessions from the Palestinians.

Uzi Landau of the Likud Party said Olmert's plan, with pullbacks from large swaths of the West Bank, would not provide Israel with sufficient protection against Hamas, the Islamic militant group that won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January.

Speaking on Israel Radio, Landau likened such a plan to "letting a little kid play with matches."

Yossi Beilin, who heads the left-leaning Meretz-Yahad party, also criticized Olmert -- but because his plan called for Israeli construction in a corridor between mainly Palestinian East Jerusalem and the West Bank's largest Jewish settlement, Maale Adumim.

Beilin, an architect of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, told Israel Radio that such a course of action "is essentially preventing a permanent Israeli-Palestinian accord."

The Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, has said it opposes unilateral Israeli measures.

"Israel cannot dictate our borders," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator.

Israeli officials have said there is little prospect for negotiation with the Palestinians, given the electoral victory of Hamas, even though the more moderate Abbas retains authority over diplomacy and dealings with Israel.

Hamas is putting together a new government and is expected to present its Cabinet in coming weeks.

Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem, also appeared to be preparing the Israeli electorate for the possibility of ceding largely Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem to the Palestinians.

In several interviews, he said he did not understand why Israelis should seek to maintain a connection to Shufat, a Palestinian refugee camp that lies within the municipal boundaries.

Under Olmert, Kadima maintains a wide support in comparison to rival parties, polls show. But that margin has been eroding in recent weeks.

A poll published Friday in the Jerusalem Post forecast that Kadima would win 35 seats in the 120-member Knesset, or parliament -- down from a high of about 45 seats in polls immediately after Sharon was stricken Jan. 4.

But Labor and Likud, Kadima's major competitors, are still estimated to win fewer than 20 seats each, according to polls. Large numbers of voters say they are still undecided.

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