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Olmert to seek West Bank pullout after election

Written by: Staff

JERUSALEM, Mar 5 (Reuters) Interim Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert plans a unilateral withdrawal from some settlements in the occupied West Bank if he wins a March 28 general election, political sources today said.

Olmert would seek the backing of the United States before acting on the proposal, which envisions removing some isolated settlements from land Israel captured in the 1967 WAsia War and which Palestinians want for a state.

Under the plan, settlers would be relocated to major settlement blocs, but Israel would not withdraw militarily from the land as it did last year from the Gaza Strip.

Olmert has long mooted the idea of a West Bank pullout and stressed his determination to set permanent borders for the Jewish state, but the plan floated today gave more details than in the past.

Surveys show most Israelis would favour such a withdrawal and the release of details could help strengthen Olmert's Kadima party, which has lost some of its big lead in opinion polls.

Palestinians welcome withdrawals from occupied land but fear Israel would deny them a viable state if it acts alone.

''It will only add to complications, this would mean dictation rather than negotiations,'' said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, reacting to news of Olmert's plan.

Jewish ultranationalists are furious at the prospect of giving up West Bank land they see as a biblical birthright.

Political sources said the plan, details of which appeared in Israeli media, was still only being discussed in private.

Israeli officials see the victory of Hamas Islamists in January's Palestinian election as further incentive to unilateral moves rather than negotiations as well as increasing the chance that such a move could win diplomatic acceptance.

US SUPPORT UNCLEAR But it was unclear whether a go-alone plan would gain the backing of the US administration, which has called for Israel and the Palestinians to implement a stalled ''road map'' peace plan.

The road map sets out steps for both sides as part of a negotiated settlement. Neither has met its commitments.

Political sources said Olmert saw little chance of success in pursuing the road map with a Palestinian Authority run by Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel.

Both Israel and the United States have said they will not hold negotiations with Hamas, which is in the process of forming the next Palestinian government.

Criticising the proposals floated on Sunday, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Israel's goal was to ''force unilateral measures and create new facts on the ground.'' Avi Dichter, an adviser to Olmert seen as a possible future defence minister, said Olmert would draw up plans for a further West Bank withdrawal immediately after the poll, the Yedioth Ahronoth daily said.

It quoted him as saying Israel would retain security control of any evacuated settlements.

''The stage of a full handover of the area will only take place after a Palestinian Authority arises and is able to and will fight terror,'' Dichter said.

Hamas, which has carried out almost 60 suicide bombings since a Palestinian uprising began in 2000, has largely abided by a year-long truce.

Olmert has made clear he would not give up the two biggest Jewish settlements, Maale Adumim and Ariel, as well as the Gush Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem. Olmert also said he could not give up the Jordan Valley to the east for strategic reasons.

The proposed withdrawal would be in line with what Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had suggested before he was incapacitated by a massive stroke on January 4.

Reuters SY BD1448

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