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Olmert signals end to West Bank pullback

JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Ehud Olmert laid out his agenda for the coming year in a policy speech to parliament Monday, but he made no mention of the key issue that brought him to power: a unilateral pullback from the West Bank.

The omission reflected Olmert’s weak political standing following the inconclusive war in Lebanon and signaled dimming hopes for a diplomatic breakthrough with the Palestinians.

The speech, at the opening of the parliament’s winter session, was overshadowed by the absence of President Moshe Katsav, who skipped the proceedings a day after police recommended indicting him on rape charges.

Olmert was elected last March as leader of Kadima, a new political party promising a large withdrawal from the West Bank. The pullback, to be implemented without an agreement with the Palestinians, was to be based solely on Israeli security needs, similar to last year’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

But Olmert was forced to put the plan on hold after militants in Gaza seized an Israeli soldier and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon captured two soldiers in separate cross-border raids.

Both sets of abductions sparked Israeli military offensives, and the heavy damage inflicted upon Israel by Hezbollah – along with the failure to free the soldiers – has weakened Olmert.

Olmert aides have conceded that he would have to put his West Bank pullout plan on hold; Monday’s speech signaled that it is no longer on his agenda.

Instead, Olmert repeated a call to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

“Abu Mazen is a legitimate partner,” he said, referring to the Palestinian leader by his nickname. “We have comprehensive contacts with him and with his people, and I am ready to meet him immediately, if he agrees, to discuss ways to make progress according to the road map.”

The road map, an internationally backed peace plan meant to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel, has been stalled since its launch more than three years ago.

Following the Hamas victory in Palestinian legislative elections early this year, chances for reviving the road map appear slim. Hamas has repeatedly rejected calls by road map sponsors to renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist.

Olmert said there would be no talks with Hamas until the group, which Israel, the U.S. and EU consider a terrorist organization, accepts the international demands.

Olmert also invited Lebanon’s prime minister, Fuad Saniora, to enter talks “without the use of go-betweens, in order to forge peace between us and Lebanon.”

In Beirut, Saniora’s office rejected the call, saying the Lebanese premier “had announced more than once that Lebanon would be the last Arab country to sign peace with Israel.”

Olmert also rejected calls by Syrian President Bashar Assad to renew peace negotiations. Olmert said Syria must first end its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, dismissing Assad’s offer as a “tactic to divert world opinion” from Syria’s harboring of extremist groups.


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