West Bank pull-out off the agenda as Olmert counts cost of failed war

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The Independent Online

In the face of plummeting approval ratings in the wake of the war in Lebanon, Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, has been forced to shelve plans to pull out of the West Bank and is struggling to ride out a growing public storm over the government's wartime bungles.

At the start of his term three months ago, Mr Olmert had been confident he could draw Israel's final borders by 2010 by pulling out of much of the West Bank unilaterally. He would turn Israel into a "fun place to live" , he promised.

After 34 days of fighting Hizbollah, Mr Olmert, known for his rapid-fire decision-making, is more subdued, turning increasingly to others for advice, members of his inner circle say.

On the domestic front, the fighting in Lebanon, along with Israel's ongoing offensive against militants in Gaza, appears to have discredited the idea of unilateralism. Israeli troops left Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005, in both cases without a peace deal.

At the height of the war, Mr Olmert still asserted that the fighting in Lebanon could create momentum for a West Bank pull-out, prompting angry accusations that he was trying to hijack the war for a divisive political agenda. However, in meetings this week, Mr Olmert told cabinet ministers and key legislators that the West Bank plan was being shelved.

A top Olmert aide, Asaf Shariv, confirmed the policy shift. "Right now, we will deal with other issues," said Mr Shariv. "It's not that it [the pull-out] was cancelled, but it is not on the agenda."

That strips Mr Olmert's coalition of its main reason for being - making another attempt to resolve the Palestinian conflict. Mr Olmert would be hard-pressed to find an alternative to the West Bank plan, since peace talks are expected to remain frozen as long as the Islamic militant group Hamas is in charge in the West Bank and Gaza.

Bereft of a program, Mr Olmert's government - an uneasy alliance of his centrist Kadima and the centre-left Labour - is increasingly vulnerable to political attack, especially as complaints mount about his handling of the war.

Mr Olmert's troubles could be further compounded by legal entanglements. Haim Ramon, his close ally and the chief ideologue of the West Bank pull-out, said yesterday that he would resign as Justice Minister next week because of a pending indictment on a charge of "indecent assault" of an 18-year-old female soldier at a government office. Mr Ramon's departure would further weaken the Olmert camp in Kadima. The next election is not scheduled until 2010, but, in the past decade, no Israeli government has survived a full four-year term.

Polls suggest that a majority of Israelis are not demanding Mr Olmert's resignation, for now.

"But he is definitely in trouble," said the analyst Yosef Alpher. "His situation does not look good."

* Israeli warplanes flew over Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and the nroth of the country yesterday but did not launch an attack.