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Olmert puts West Bank plans on hold

JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has put his proposal for an Israeli pullout from parts of the occupied West Bank on hold for now following the war in Lebanon, one of his aides said yesterday.

The aide acknowledged that the prime minister's more pressing priority for now was leading the recovery from economic damage in northern Israel caused by a month of rocket attacks by Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas. ``There is no point in trying to pursue the plan at the moment, there are far more urgent matters which must be dealt with following the war in Lebanon," the aide said.

A report in the Haaretz daily, citing what it said were private conversations between Olmert and other ministers and party members, quoted the prime minister as saying the issue was no longer at the top of his government's agenda.

Under the West Bank plan, which had yet to be set in motion, Israel, in the absence of a Palestinian peace partner, would remove dozens of isolated settlements 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 enthusiasm for territorial withdrawals, which Olmert made the centerpiece of the platform that won him election in March.

Rightist opponents of the Gaza pullout have warned that another unilateral pullout plan would only embolden Palestinian militants in their fight against Israel. They cite the rocket fire into Israel from Gaza and Lebanon as an example.

Palestinians have remained skeptical of Olmert's ``convergence plan," saying it would deny them a viable state encompassing both the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

President Bush cautiously embraced Olmert's ``bold ideas" during the Israeli leader's trip to Washington in May but said talks with the Palestinians were preferable to unilateral moves.

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