Olmert to redraw Israel's borders 'within four years'

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Israel is ready to annexsections of the West Bank and withdraw from others to establish "permanent" borders by 2010, the acting Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, said yesterday.

Mr Olmert again went further than Ariel Sharon, who is still critically ill in hospital, in making clear that he would instigate further significant withdrawals from occupied Palestinian territory if he wins a general election this month. But he also promised that Israel would go ahead with its planned expansion of the biggest West Bank settlement, Ma'ale Adumim, along the so-called "E1" corridor towards Jerusalem - a policy frowned upon by the US and the rest of the international community.

The settlement block is among those Israel is determined will remain within its borders, however they look when finally drawn.

Mr Olmert told The Jerusalem Post that he had no plans to meet the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, after the election, saying: "There can only be a reason for a meeting if it serves a political purpose. If the government is a Hamas one, what political purpose can it serve?"

The acting Prime Minister - whose party, Kadima, which was founded by Mr Sharon before his stroke in January, remains firm favourite to come first in the elections on 28 March - said that if he won he would initially wait to see whether the newly empowered Hamas would recognise Israel, disavow terrorism and disarm, accept previous Palestinian Authority-Israel agreements and act according to the guidelines of the road map to peace.

"We will wait, but I don't intend to wait forever," he said. "If, after a reasonable time passes, it becomes clear the PA is not willing to accept these principles, we will need to begin to act."

Mr Olmert, who repeated his pledge to resume construction on E1 in a separate interview with Haaretz, said: "It is inconceivable that we should speak of Ma'ale Adumim as a part of the State of Israel, while leaving it as an island or an isolated enclave ... In my view, there is an absolute consensus in Israel on this issue."

Government officials explained yesterday that Mr Olmert's heavy emphasis on E1 construction - which Mr Olmert himself admitted last year had been halted because of US opposition - was a direct and politically necessary response to Benjamin Netanyahu. The Likud leader has repeatedly used the construction freeze to claim that Kadima is not doing enough to separate Jerusalem from the West Bank and strengthen the major settlement blocks.

In his interview in The Jerusalem Post, Mr Olmert would only say that the new borders would include Gush Etzion, the "Jerusalem envelope" of West Bank settlements bordering the capital, Ma'ale Adumim, the "Ariel region" and the "Jordan river as a security border" - all in the West Bank. But he refused to endorse remarks by his prominent Kadima colleague, the former Shin Bet head Avi Dichter, who said the annexation would also include a series of other major settlement clusters, including those in and around Hebron.

Giving a timetable for the first time, Mr Olmert said he intended within four years to "get to Israel's permanent borders, whereby we will completely separate from the majority of the Palestinian population and preserve a large and stable Jewish majority in Israel".

Mr Olmert added that the 450-mile separation barrier would become the border, sections of it being moved eastwards or westwards as necessary.

Saeb Erekat, head of the Palestinian negotiating team, said: "We invite Mr Olmert to resume negotiations. Unilateralism will create problems rather than solving them." He added that borders could only be fixed by "permanent status" negotiations. Mr Erekat, a long-standing Fatah politician, continued: "Hamas does not want to negotiate with Israel. Unilateralism will not hurt Hamas."

His remarks were in line with ones issued on Wednesday by the office of the Palestinian President,saying: "Security for both Palestinians and Israelis will only come through an agreed peace. Israeli unilateralism is destroying the two-state solution while disenfranchising millions of Israelis and Palestinians who want a negotiated agreement now."