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Israel Begins Forming New Government

Israel has formally begun the process of forming a new government, following last week's elections. A center-left coalition is emerging with a sweeping plan to relinquish large parts of the West Bank.

Israeli President Moshe Katzav opened talks with political parties presenting their choices for the country's next prime minister.

Mr. Katzav is expected to appoint acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to form the next government. Mr. Olmert's Kadima party won the most parliamentary seats, with 28. Since that is far short of a majority in the 120-member Knesset, or parliament, he will have to form a coalition with other parties.

Mr. Olmert should be able to cobble together a coalition with dovish, left-wing parties that support his plan for unilateral withdrawals from large parts of the West Bank during the next four years.

Mr. Olmert says that, with the recent election of the Islamic militant group Hamas, Israel does not have a Palestinian peace partner. So, Israel would draw its own borders unilaterally.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon began the process when he pulled Israel out of the Gaza Strip last August and dismantled all 21 settlements there. Mr. Sharon is in a coma, after suffering a stroke in January, and now Mr. Olmert is picking up where he left off.

"We are going in the area of conflict management," said Israeli spokesman Dore Gold. "This conflict, at present, with Hamas in power, cannot be resolved. The best way we can manage it may be with unilateralism, but, most importantly, from my perspective, it is maintaining something, which is really the Sharon tradition and the Sharon legacy. And that is defensible borders for Israel."

Palestinians reject the plan, because those borders include Israeli annexation of big West Bank settlement blocs.

"If Israel does not choose to evacuate the West Bank the way it has evacuated the Gaza Strip, and decides not to opt for negotiations with the Palestinians, that will pose a problem, definitely," commented former Palestinian legislator Sabri Saddam.

Hamas says the Israeli plan is a land grab that will lead to confrontation, not peace.