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US had early notice of Israel's West Bank plan, aide says

Proposal seeks to move settlers into larger blocs

JERUSALEM -- Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert approached the United States with his plan to determine Israel's borders before making it public, an aide said yesterday, reflecting how crucial US support would be for any initiative to separate from the Palestinians.

Ariel Sharon similarly brought the United States into the loop early three years ago when he embarked on his historic Gaza Strip pullout. Sharon had a stroke on Jan. 4 and remains in a coma. Olmert, his closest political ally, became acting prime minister.

Olmert's spokesman, Asaf Shariv, said an aide presented the plan to a US official before Olmert disclosed it last week in interviews.

''They neither approved nor objected to it," Shariv said.

Stewart Tuttle, a US Embassy spokesman, was unable to confirm that the conversation took place.

In his interviews, Olmert said he planned to move tens of thousands of settlers from their locations in the West Bank into the larger settlement blocs, and maintain control of the strategic Jordan River valley and Jerusalem holy sites. The plan effectively leaves the rest of the territory for the Palestinians and has energized Israel's election campaign.

Olmert's main hard-line rival in the March 28 vote, Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud, declared the election a referendum on the future of Israel's presence in the West Bank.

Dovish Labor party leaders said Olmert is copying their platform while ruling out talks with the Palestinians.

An analysis published in Haaretz, a daily newspaper, said, ''Everything is on the table . . . now it's up to the voter," adding, ''There's no doubt that Olmert has taken a courageous move."

Though still ahead in the polls, Olmert's Kadima Party has been slipping a bit, and analysts said he presented the plan in an effort to shore up support.

At least tacit US approval would be critical, as the United States is Israel's most important ally.

Sharon extracted a statement from President Bush that final borders between Israel and the Palestinians would have to take into account demographic changes since Israel captured the West Bank in 1967, taken to mean that Israel would annex some settlement blocs.

But US officials have reacted coolly to Israeli assertions on the Ariel settlement bloc, deep inside the West Bank, and the Jordan Valley. Also, up to now, the United States has insisted that borders must be set through negotiations and has opposed unilateral Israeli moves.

The victory by Hamas in the Palestinian elections in January changed the equation. Israel, the United States, and European Union consider Hamas a terrorist organization. Israel has ruled out talks with Hamas.

Palestinians rejected Olmert's plan, insisting final borders must be negotiated, and a senior Hamas official criticized it yesterday.

''It's a unilateral separation plan," Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy chief of Hamas's political bureau, said in a phone interview from Saudi Arabia. ''This cannot be accepted by any Palestinian because it violates our people's rights."

Hamas is putting together a new Palestinian government.

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