Olmert, Sworn In, Restates Goal

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 5, 2006

JERUSALEM, May 4 -- Ehud Olmert was sworn in as Israel's prime minister Thursday at the head of a governing coalition he warned would face "major challenges" as he worked to fulfill his campaign pledge to evacuate isolated West Bank settlements and draw the Jewish state's final border.

The coalition comprises four parties that together control 67 seats in Israel's 120-seat parliament, the Knesset. Olmert's government falls squarely in the center of Israel's political spectrum, leaving out the most hawkish and dovish parties and giving him room to seek support outside his coalition.

Olmert became acting prime minister after his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, suffered a stroke in January, and he was assigned to form the next government after his Kadima party won the most seats in March 28 elections. Outlining his government's agenda to the Knesset on Thursday, Olmert reiterated his goal of defining Israel's eastern border during his four-year term by reducing the number of settlements in the West Bank.

He said the government would "maintain a substantial and solid Jewish majority" within Israel, warning that the scattering of settlements throughout the West Bank "creates a mixture of populations that are inseparable, which endangers the existence of Israel as a Jewish state."

Olmert said he would give Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in a political struggle with a cabinet led by the radical Islamic group Hamas, an opportunity to confront the armed militias at war with Israel, a precondition for peace talks. Olmert said Israel would prefer negotiating with a stable Palestinian government to taking steps on its own but would "operate in other ways" if he concluded that a political agreement was impossible.

"We will operate without an agreement with the Palestinians to create an understanding that will be based first and foremost on the right definitions of what are the desirable boundaries of the state of Israel," Olmert said.

The government's swearing-in culminates weeks of negotiations that at times put Olmert at odds with powerful members of Kadima, the centrist movement that Sharon founded last year to carry out further withdrawals from land Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war. The Knesset approved the new government by a vote of 65 to 49.

Sharon evacuated Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip last year, when Olmert was his deputy. Olmert envisions a larger, more difficult withdrawal from land that is of greater religious and strategic importance to Israel.

His advisers estimated during the campaign that the evacuation could involve 80,000 settlers in the West Bank, although they have sought to lower that estimate in recent days. Olmert has said that any final border would include major West Bank settlement blocs and East Jerusalem as part of Israel.

The plan would cost billions of dollars more than the Gaza evacuation. Olmert is expected to appeal to the Bush administration to help defray future costs and is scheduled to make his first visit to Washington as prime minister this month. "The arrangement we are seeking in the Middle East is based first and foremost on broad agreement among ourselves and then our allies throughout the world," he noted Thursday.

Olmert's government includes Kadima, Labor, the Pensioners Party and Shas, the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party. Although three of the parties have pledged to support Olmert's evacuation plan, Shas, which holds 12 Knesset seats, was allowed to join the government without making an explicit commitment of support.

David Hazony, editor of the Azure policy journal published by the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, said, "You have a government whose composition accurately reflects the Israeli sense of confusion and whose heart may not be in disengagement as much as it once was."

"If Sharon pulled off the impossible, creating the momentum and precedent for a next logical step, what you see now I think is the process stalled," Hazony said. "It's going to look and feel like a caretaker government from the beginning, one without much wiggle room on any issue. Within six months, you are going to have frustration within his coalition partners, and he has articulated very little that would help him expand his base."

Olmert, 60, has broad political experience at the national level and as the mayor of Jerusalem. A lawyer by training, Olmert said he was still holding talks with the dovish Meretz party, the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism and the hawkish Israel Is Our Home party with a view to their joining the government. The parties control 22 seats among them.

But the head of Israel Is Our Home, Avigdor Lieberman, who is most popular among immigrants from the former Soviet Union, suggested in a Knesset debate later that Arab parliament members who had met with Hamas officials should be executed as enemy collaborators.

Hamas's charter calls for the destruction of Israel, but Arab members of the Knesset often meet with Hamas leaders as intermediaries between the two governments. Olmert strongly condemned the statement, which made it unlikely Lieberman's party would be invited to join his government.

Although Olmert might not have the votes within his own coalition to win Knesset approval for a West Bank withdrawal, he can probably count on support from Meretz and the Arab parties, which control 10 seats.

In addition to Olmert, Kadima will have 11 ministers in the 25-member cabinet, among the largest cabinet blocs in Israel's history. Kadima will run the Foreign, Finance, Interior, Justice and Internal Security ministries, among others. Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister, will also serve as Olmert's deputy. Shimon Peres, named minister for development in the Negev desert and Galilee regions, will also hold the title of vice prime minister.

Olmert gave the defense portfolio, arguably the most important, to Labor Party leader Amir Peretz.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company