A senior Israeli official says that more Jewish settlements in the West Bank will be closed after next year's initial dismantling of all settlements in the Gaza Strip and four small ones in the West Bank. VOA's Larry James reports from Jerusalem on the pullout that the official say will come regardless of who emerges as the new Palestinian president following next month's elections.

Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the Jerusalem Post newspaper Thursday that Israel should follow up next year's planned pullout from the Gaza Strip with a much larger withdrawal from the West Bank. Mr. Olmert said sitting and doing nothing is not an option adding that it is in Israel's interest to close even more settlements than outlined in the current disengagement plan.

The deputy prime minister gave no details of the extent of what he termed a second disengagement, but said it was the only alternative to an even more massive pullout of the West Bank called for by the internationally-backed "road map" peace plan.

Ehud Olmert is a close confidant of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. His announcement is viewed as a trial balloon to gauge public sentiment about future policy. He played just such a role last year when he called for the closure of all Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip. Mr. Sharon has since made plan the center piece of his administrations policy.

In his interview Mr. Olmert said even if front runner Mahmoud Abbas wins the Palestinian presidency in the January 9 election it is far from certain he would be an effective partner for peace. He described the Palestinian official as having a hard-core stance on such critical issues as final borders, the status of Jerusalem and the right of return of Palestinian refugees. Mr. Olmert said such positions may make it impossible to reach a deal with him.

Meanwhile, Israeli forces launched a raid in the Khan Younis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip early Thursday. Palestinian witnesses say at least four militants were killed in the operation the army says was aimed at stopping Palestinian militants' from firing mortars and rockets on nearby Jewish settlements.