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Olmert gets official nod to form Israeli government

Written by: Staff

Jerusalem, Apr 7: Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert received the formal nod today to form a government which he pledged would set Israel's permanent borders within four years with or without Palestinian agreement.

''I have the honour to announce that I have decided to ask member of parliament Ehud Olmert to form the government,'' President Moshe Katsav said at a ceremony with the Kadima party leader.

Olmert, whose centrist party came first in last week's election with 29 seats in the 120-member parliament, will have up to 42 days to put together a governing coalition.

''I hope to form a government, which will have the broadest possible support, as quickly as possible,'' Olmert said, accepting the nomination.

The centre-left Labour Party led by former trade union chief Amir Peretz has already agreed to a political partnership with Kadima. Kadima will now try to woo a smattering of smaller parties and set government guidelines.

Formal coalition talks will be launched on Sunday, Israeli media said. Negotiations could take weeks as politicians from several parties vie for the top cabinet seats.

Meanwhile, Israel's outgoing government is expected to officially name Olmert on Tuesday as prime minister instead of Ariel Sharon, who was incapacitated by a stroke in January, an Israeli official said.

Olmert assumed Sharon's powers weeks ago when Sharon fell into a coma, but Israeli law says the cabinet must formally elect him to the post once the prime minister has not functioned for 100 days.

Olmert pledges peace efforts

Olmert has proposed removing Jewish settlers from swathes of the occupied West Bank in the continued absence of peace talks with the Palestinians. At the ceremony, Olmert promised to make ''a serious and genuine attempt'' to revive peacemaking.

Olmert reiterated he wanted to reach ''an understanding'' with the United States and other countries on working ''towards the fixing of the permanent border lines even without an agreement''.

Under Olmert's ''convergence plan'', Israel would keep major settlement blocs and trace its final frontier by 2010 along a barrier it is building in the West Bank, where 240,000 Israelis live among 2.4 million Palestinians.

Israeli diplomats abroad have been instructed to begin promoting the plan with foreign governments even before Olmert forms a new government, Israel's Channel 10 television said.

Palestinians condemn the plan they say would annex land and deny the viable state they seek in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel captured in the 1967 West Asia war.

With a new Palestinian government led by the Islamic militant group in Hamas in place, the prospect that peacemaking could be resumed soon seems unlikely.

In a sign of Israel's tough stance towards Hamas, which advocates its destruction, Israeli security forces detained Palestinian cabinet minister Khaled Abu Araf at a roadblock in the occupied West Bank. He was released five hours later.

''He was held because he is not allowed to enter these areas, an army spokesman said.

Hamas held its first cabinet meeting on Wednesday following its victory in the January 25 Palestinian election.

Israel says it cannot consider dealing with Hamas until the group recognises the Jewish state, renounces violence and accepts prior interim Israeli-Palestinian peace accords.

''The Occupation is continuing the escalation to undermine the work of the new government,'' Palestinian cabinet spokesman Ghazi Hamad said in Gaza, using Hamas's term for Israel.

''The arrest of a cabinet minister proves the falseness of Israel's arguments that it seeks peace,'' Hamad said.


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