Israeli Cabinet sworn in


JERUSALEM -- Israel's new government took office yesterday with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledging to carry out his plan for a substantial withdrawal from the West Bank.

"The borders of Israel that will be shaped in the coming years will be significantly different than the territories now in Israel's hands," Olmert said as he presented his Cabinet to parliament.

Olmert has said that he intends to set Israel's final borders by 2010, removing dozens of Jewish settlements from the West Bank while annexing three major settlement blocs to Israel.

The plan calls for Israel to pull back unilaterally if it decides that the Palestinians have not met conditions for negotiations.

The new Israeli Cabinet, with 25 ministers, was sworn in after it received parliament's vote of confidence.

Taking the oath of office, Olmert completed a transition that began Jan. 4, when as deputy prime minister he took the reins of power after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a massive stroke. Sharon remains in a coma.

Olmert's governing coalition, whose main partners are his centrist Kadima Party and the left-leaning Labor Party, controls 67 seats in the 120-member legislature. The coalition also includes the religious Shas Party and the Pensioners Party.

Shas entered the government without supporting the unilateral withdrawal and might bolt the coalition when the plan is carried out. Olmert would then need the parliamentary support of leftist and Israeli Arab parties outside the current coalition.

Speaking to parliament yesterday, Olmert said the withdrawal plan is necessary to preserve Israel's Jewish majority.

"The continued scattered settlement across Judea and Samaria creates an inseparable mixture of populations that will threaten the existence of the state of Israel as a Jewish state," Olmert said, using the biblical term for the West Bank. "Dividing the land in order to ensure a Jewish majority is the lifeline of Zionism."

Outlying settlements would be removed but the main West Bank settlement blocs and all of Jerusalem would "forever be an inseparable part of the sovereign state of Israel," Olmert said.

The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as their future capital and say the large Israeli enclaves in the West Bank will prevent the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

Olmert said he would seek international support for the withdrawal plan, primarily from the United States and Europe. He is expected to travel to Washington this month to discuss the plan with President Bush.

Addressing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Olmert said he prefers to negotiate a peace agreement, rather than act unilaterally, if the Palestinian Authority disarms militant groups and upholds previous agreements with Israel.

The Hamas-led Palestinian government has rejected such demands, and Olmert said there could be no negotiations with a "Palestinian government led by terrorist elements."

Israel was prepared to allow time for a change in the Palestinian position, he said, but "when we reach the conclusion that the Palestinian Authority is delaying and not prepared for serious, substantial and fair negotiations ... we will act even without an agreement with the Palestinians."

In an interview published yesterday in the Israeli newspaper Maariv, Abbas appealed to Olmert to resume peace talks immediately.

Although Hamas rejects negotiations with the Israelis, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has said that his government would not object if Abbas pursued talks on his own.

Joel Greenberg writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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