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Israeli official sticks by withdrawal plan

JERUSALEM -- Israel's deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, says he believes that any attempt to dismantle Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip will cause a fierce split in Israeli society and set off violence.

 

But Olmert, who surprised members of his right-wing Likud Party a week ago by proposing that Israel withdraw from most of the West Bank and Gaza unilaterally and evacuate a large number of settlements, said in an interview that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government was sturdy enough to withstand the tremors.

Sharon has refused to endorse the plan, but Olmert said he was in step with his boss.

"I've known Sharon for years," Olmert, 58, said Thursday. "I know where his brain is. I know where his heart is at this point. I know what he feels needs to be done even if he didn't spell it out to me in explicit terms."

He said Sharon probably would begin to evacuate some settlements "in a matter of months" if no breakthrough is made in talks with the Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei. Palestinians criticize the proposal because it would leave them with less than the entire West Bank for their state.

Olmert, who holds several key positions in Sharon's Cabinet and aspires to succeed him, had been identified for years with the hawkish wing of Likud. Some analysts viewed his program as an effort to capture the political center and edge out other would-be successors, including former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Elections in Israel are three years off.

But Olmert said he has been troubled for years by the corrosive effects of Israel's war with the Palestinians and by the area's changing demographics.

"I don't share the basic concept on the left that we are just occupiers" in the West Bank and Gaza, he said. "But I understood that ultimately at some point in life, Israel will not be able to control 4 million Palestinians who don't want to be part of the state of Israel."

Palestinians make up about 40 percent of the total population in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Experts contend they will be a majority within as little as a decade, raising the specter of Israel as an apartheid-era South Africa.

Like Sharon, Olmert wants Israel to finish building the separation barrier in the West Bank and drastically restrict Palestinian entry into the Jewish state. The barrier could leave as much as 40 percent of the West Bank under Israeli control.

But while Sharon has talked only vaguely about the fate of settlements left on the Palestinian side of the divide, Olmert said he believes they all should be dismantled.

"This is going to be the most serious internal crisis in the history of the state of Israel -- nothing similar to anything that has ever happened. Certainly, there will be violence," Olmert said in the interview, which took place in the back seat of his car as he traveled from one meeting to the next. But "I think technically, politically, Sharon will have the power" to dismantle the settlements, adding that he has received death threats since announcing the plan.

About 220,000 Israelis live in 125 settlements in the West Bank. Many are hard-core opponents of Palestinian independence, believing Israel can hold on to the territory while giving its 2 million Palestinians only limited rights. But the majority of settlers, according to Olmert, would leave quietly under a government program that included financial compensation.

Some analysts described Olmert's plan -- spelled out in an interview with the Israeli daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth this month -- as a trial balloon for Sharon's own secret program. Sharon told the Globe in a recent interview that there was a "need to make some changes in the deployment of military forces and also the deployment of some of the Jewish communities in the area."

A senior member of Sharon's staff said the Israeli leader might spell out his program in a policy address scheduled for Thursday.

Qurei, who took office last month and has yet to meet with Sharon, said unilateral moves that leave Israel in control of large tracts of the West Bank would be a nonstarter.

"I fear that the separation fence is the line on which Sharon bases his unilateral move," Qurei said. "If that is what he is planning, I can say right now that this won't help; it won't bring peace closer. No Palestinian will agree to a state that is imprisoned inside a wall."

In putting forth the plan, Olmert, whose father was a Likud legislator, was seen as taking a political risk. Settlers make up a key electorate for Likud and even left-leaning governments have shied from dismantling settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

Olmert smiled outside a Tel Aviv convention hall when his media adviser presented him with the first poll results Thursday, which indicated that 53 percent of Israelis surveyed said they supported a unilateral withdrawal that includes the evacuation of many settlements.

Another poll, whose results were published Friday, contained more surprising figures, indicating that 48 percent of Likud supporters surveyed said they favored Olmert's plan. Among settlers, 28 percent of those surveyed said they supported a withdrawal from most of the territories, according to the survey, published in Yedioth Ahronoth.

Olmert said he prefers to reach an agreement with the Palestinians but doubts the two sides can bridge the gaps on territory, Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

"Some people, I feel, when they say they want an agreement, they use it as an excuse for us to stay here [in the West Bank and Gaza] forever," he said. "We all prefer an agreement, but if it doesn't work, how many years are we going to wait?"

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