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Israel Deputy PM's Call For Withdrawal From Palestinian Areas Sparks Controversy


Israel's deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has sparked a political storm with his call for a unilateral withdrawal of troops from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Left-wing politicians came out in support of his stand, while some right-wing Cabinet ministers called for his removal from the government. Mr. Olmert stood firm on Sunday, repeating his view that a unilateral troop withdrawal from most of the Palestinian territories is the only way to preserve the Jewish and democratic character of the state of Israel.

His position, first spelled out in an interview in the largest-selling Hebrew daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, stunned political parties.

The justice minister and head of the secular Shinnui Party, Yosef Lapid, said the interview was politically courageous. The leader of the opposition Labor Party, Shimon Peres, pledged to support Mr. Olmert if he meant what he said.

Their statements contrasted with strong opposition from other quarters, including Mr. Olmert's own ruling Likud Party.

Even the most dovish of the Likud Cabinet ministers, including Meir Sheetrit, refused to defend Mr. Olmert.

"It's a nice statement, but I don't think it's feasible," he said. "I don't accept it. I think that, as a matter of fact, withdrawing one-sided is a way of escaping from reality. I think that the better way to go is to really try to make an effort, in order to arrive at peace with the Palestinians, and then withdraw from the territories. I don't see any reason to withdraw from the territories without getting back anything."

Another cabinet minister, Effi Eitam, the leader of the National Religious Party, threatened to pull his faction out of the government, if Mr. Olmert's plan is accepted.

"I think it is a very dangerous declaration, because the actual meaning of what he said is that terror can and will defeat the state of Israel, and will cause the government, the army, to run away in the middle of the night," commented Mr. Eitam.

Other ministers also strongly questioned Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon during Sunday's Cabinet meeting about Mr. Olmert's comments.

One minister asked why Mr. Olmert was allowed to make his views known before they had been discussed within private government forums.

Mr. Sharon, who has himself spoken recently of taking unilateral steps to end the conflict with the Palestinians, promised that the issue would be fully debated at a future meeting of the Israeli Cabinet.