Olmert to seek support over West Bank withdrawal

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With two days to go before Israel's election, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday pledged to consult Israel's citizens and then the world about his plan to pull out of much of the West Bank, remove settlements and set his country's borders within four years.

Olmert's Kadima party is far ahead in the polls, and his two main opponents devoted the end of their campaigns to blasting Olmert and his plan, after declaring the vote a referendum on the future of Israel's presence in the West Bank.

No official campaigning is allowed on Monday, the day before the election. Israeli soldiers in units along the Lebanon border began voting yesterday.

A poll for Channel 10 TV and the Haaretz daily released yesterday evening showed Kadima with 36 seats of the 120 in the parliament, the hawkish Likud 14 and the moderate Labor 18. Pollster Camil Fuchs said the survey questioned 800 voters with a margin of error of less than 3 percentage points. He said 22 percent remained undecided, but most of their votes were apportioned among the parties through follow-up questions.

Thirty-one parties are running, but fewer than half are expected to land seats in the parliament.

Israeli security forces were stepping up their alert ahead of the election. Jerusalem police they would close a hotly disputed holy site in the Old City of Jerusalem to visitors on Monday "to prevent any attempted provocation," allowing only Muslim worshippers to enter.

Olmert's plan, which he calls "consolidation," has breathed life into an election campaign that has been sleepy despite earthquakes in Israeli politics - the exit of Ariel Sharon, felled by a stroke on Jan. 4 and still in a coma, and Kadima taking a wide lead, the first time a centrist party has tasted success in a nation traditionally split along hawkish and dovish lines over policy toward the Palestinians.

Olmert proposes completing the barrier between Israel and the West Bank that has been under construction for more than four years, incorporating main settlement blocs on the "Israeli" side and moving settlers outside the barrier into the blocs.

Olmert said he would try to build a consensus in the fractious Israeli public to back his plan. Settlers, hawkish supporters and most Orthodox Jews hotly opposed Sharon's unilateral pullout from Gaza last summer, forcing Sharon to reshuffle his Cabinet, leave Likud and create Kadima.

So far there is no sign of moderation among opponents of unilateral Israeli pullbacks. Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu told Israel Radio that Olmert's plan would only bring Hamas closer to Israel. "These borders that our political rivals are proposing will not be defensible," Netanyahu said. "No one will agree to them."