Olmert sees talks with US before pullout

RAMALLAH — Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday Israel would seek talks with the US and others before embarking on another round of unilateral withdrawals from occupied Palestinian territories.

In an interview with Israel Radio, Olmert said Tuesday’s Israeli general elections would be a referendum on what he called his “consolidation” plan, a blueprint he has laid out in his election campaign for evacuating smaller, isolated Jewish settlements in the West Bank while strengthening Israel’s grip on the large settlement blocs as well as occupied East Jerusalem and setting final borders for Israel.

Olmert’s party, Kadima, is maintaining a healthy lead in polls and is set to lead Israel’s next government after the March 28 vote.

He told Israel Radio an internal Israeli debate “to define for ourselves our red lines” would be the first step towards what he has said could be unilateral moves should peace negotiations with the Palestinians not restart.

After that there would be “negotiations with the United States and the international community” on borders they would support, said Olmert.

Olmert’s blueprint for the future of the West Bank is staunchly opposed by Palestinians, who say that it not only entails illegal annexation of occupied Palestinian land but will divide the remainder of the West Bank into disconnected sections and make impossible the emergence of any viable Palestinian state.

The international community, including the United States, supports the establishment of a contiguous and viable Palestinian state, and it is unlikely Israel will garner international support to set its own final borders. Israel may however, as it did last year with its unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip, gain support for further evacuations of settlements.

In addition, US President George W. Bush’s statement last year that it would be “unrealistic” to expect a full return to 1967 borders, was interpreted in Israel as meaning that Israel’s large settlement blocs will eventually become sovereign Israeli territory.

Olmert told Israel Radio yesterday that “I have a foundation for believing that there is great openness, both in the United States and elsewhere, to listen to these points and to discuss them seriously.

He held out little prospect for entering into negotiations with the Palestinian side, though he added that Israel would wait a “reasonable period” for Hamas to show its cards. He added, however, that eventually the international community would “reach the same conclusion as us — that Hamas is not a negotiating partner.”

In Sharm El Sheikh, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called on the next Israeli government to work with the Palestinians.

“Any Israeli government must cooperate with us and must not ignore the Palestinian side,” Abbas said after talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

In a letter to Palestinian Prime Minister-designate Ismail Haniyeh over the weekend, Abbas warned Hamas that if he felt the new government was acting against the overriding Palestinian national interest, he would not hesitate to use his presidential authority, which include disbanding the government.

But Abbas said he would not block the new government from taking office despite his objections to the political platform of Hamas.

“[Hamas] has a different programme to that of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organisation and in the short-term that will hamper our work,” Abbas said.

“I told the prime minister that he must change his programme to prevent our people facing the spectre of being marginalised internationally.”

The Palestinian Legislative Council convenes on Monday for a confidence vote on Hamas’ 24-member Cabinet. One independent nominee in that Cabinet, Tanaas Abu Eitah, who was designated tourism minister, withdrew his nomination yesterday, citing “family and external pressures.”

A Hamas spokesman said Abu Eitah had come under pressure from foreign companies with whom he and family members had business dealings and had also received threats.

Elsewhere, Arab foreign ministers yesterday dismissed Western explanations for cutting aid to the PA but offered no extra money to compensate for a budget shortfall when Hamas takes office.

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