By Dean Yates
JERUSALEM – Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert began building a coalition on Wednesday after winning Israel’s election on plans to impose final borders with the Palestinians by uprooting many West Bank settlements.
Appealing to Palestinian
President Mahmoud Abbas, Olmert said in a post-election speech that Israel was ready to live alongside the Palestinians in peace after decades of conflict.
But in the absence of peace talks — now a remote prospect with the Islamist militant group Hamas about to take office — Olmert has vowed to set Israel’s frontier by 2010 by removing isolated West Bank settlements and expanding bigger blocs there.
Olmert’s centrist Kadima party fared worse than expected in Tuesday’s poll, signalling he might struggle to sustain support for his plan. Kadima’s showing of 28 seats in the 120-member parliament was among the lowest for an election winner.
But some political analysts said Olmert should be able to stitch together a coalition that would avoid the need to negotiate with right-wing parties opposed to any withdrawal from West Bank land that settlers see as a biblical birthright.
“I think we can run a government with 28 seats. It will be difficult, but possible,” elder statesman and senior Kadima politician Shimon Peres said on Army Radio.
Besides Kadima, election results showed centre-left Labour with 20 seats, the ultra-Orthodox Shas with 13, ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu with 12 and right-wing Likud with 11. Opinion polls had originally predicted Kadima would win 44 seats.
Kadima, founded just four months ago, was expected to seek a coalition with Labour and small parties, in talks expected to last for weeks. Some religious parties and one representing pensioners could back his West Bank plan.
Maya Jacobs, a Kadima spokeswoman, said unofficial coalition talks with leading parties including Labour had begun.
Palestinians condemn Olmert’s West Bank plans as denying them a viable state. The sweeping measures would uproot tens of thousands of Jewish settlers while tracing a border along a fortified barrier Israel is building inside the West Bank.
Abbas, who wants a two-state solution but has been weakened by Hamas’s victory in elections in January, urged Olmert to drop unilateralism.
“This result will not change (anything) as long as the agenda of Olmert himself does not change and he does not abandon the question of unilateral agreements,” Abbas said in Khartoum.
Olmert said Jews had aspired for thousands of years to create a homeland throughout the Land of Israel, biblical territory that includes the West Bank.
“But acknowledging reality and circumstances, we are ready to compromise,” Olmert said.
If the Palestinians did not move towards peace, he said, “Israel will take its destiny in hand” and set final borders.
Olmert’s unilateral approach appeals to many Israelis worn down by a five-year-old Palestinian uprising and worried by the rise to power of Hamas, which is sworn to destroy Israel.
A Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, condemned the proposal.
“Olmert’s plan is very dangerous and completely rejected by Hamas. The plan will push the region into greater escalation and we will lobby all Palestinians to confront it,” Abu Zuhri said.
Olmert has ruled out any dealings with Hamas until it recognises Israel, disarms and accepts interim peace deals.
Israel’s financial markets fell, fearful Olmert will strain the budget with social spending needed to lure small parties to his coalition. Stocks were down 1 percent at 0800 GMT while the shekel currency was off 0.5 percent against the dollar.
Some 60,000 West Bank settlers could be affected by Olmert’s plan, far more than the 8,500 removed from Gaza last year. Some 240,000 Israelis live among 2.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank, territory Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
The trauma for settlers of any withdrawal could dwarf that of the Gaza evacuation which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had championed in a reversal of policy. Sharon founded Kadima before suffering a stroke in January that sent him into a coma.
The World Court has ruled all 145 settlements Israel has built on occupied territory illegal. Israel disputes this.
President Moshe Katsav is expected to formally assign the task of putting together a government after consultations with parties on Sunday. — Reuter