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Israel Vows to Keep Large West Bank Settlement Blocs


Israel's acting prime minister on Tuesday vowed to include a large West Bank settlement in his plan to unilaterally draw Israel's border with Palestinians. The comments come just two weeks before Israelis vote in general elections on March 28.

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told residents of the settlement of Ariel that he plans to include the settlement town inside Israel, as part of his plan to draw Israel's final borders with the Palestinians by 2010.

Mr. Olmert says the Ariel settlement is part of Israel and will remain so forever. He says he hopes he will be able to insure that Ariel's territorial contiguity with Israel will be formalized in a border agreement by the year 2010.

At the same time Mr. Olmert says he intends to pursue negotiations based on the "road map peace plan," which calls on Israelis and Palestinians to reach a negotiated settlement towards a two-state solution.

Ariel which is about 60 kilometers north of Jerusalem lies in the heart of the West Bank. In recent days Mr. Olmert has said he intends to evacuate some West Bank settlements and move settlers who live in those settlements, to three large settlement blocs in the West Bank, including Ariel.

Akiva Aldar, a columnist with the daily Ha'aretz newspaper says the plan is popular with some Israelis who like the idea of unilaterally withdrawing from some Palestinian territory, and who do not see Palestinians as a reliable negotiating partners.

"I think you have all kinds of possible scenarios here that will be based on a platform that is suggesting interim arrangements and agreements and unilateralism, and the same kind of disengagement that does not require difficult decisions such as final status settlements, refugees and especially Jerusalem," he said.

Mr. Olmert says he has briefed U.S. officials about his plan to unilaterally draw Israel's final borders. The Israeli prime minister has said that since the militant group Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections Israel does not have a Palestinian partner to negotiate with. However, in a sign that Mr. Olmert may be softening his position, a key ally of Mr. Olmert, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, held talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday in Jordan.

U.S. officials, including President Bush, say they believe Israel will hold onto some settlement blocs in any agreement with the Palestinians, but that Israel should halt any further settlement construction in the West Bank, including construction that links large settlement blocs like Ariel to Israeli territory.