JERUSALEM – Ehud Olmert moved into the prime minister's office on Sunday, vowing to redefine Israel's borders while cracking down on wildcat settlement activity.
During his five-month caretaker government, Olmert had refused to take over the office he inherited from Ariel Sharon after his devastating Jan. 4 stroke. He also refrained from sitting in the prime minister's brown leather seat during Cabinet meetings.
On Sunday, he officially moved into the prime minister's residence, declaring that reconfiguring Israel's borders would be his government's key mission.
"In the next few years, we will change Israel's character to ensure it will be a state with a solid Jewish majority living in defensible borders that can provide security to the residents of Israel and separate us from those who must live alongside us and not among us," he said.
Olmert has gone further than any other Israeli leader in spelling out his plans for Israel's future borders with the Palestinians, saying he intends to uproot Jewish settlers from heavily populated Palestinian areas, while fortifying major settlement blocs. He's said he'll try to reach a negotiated agreement, but would act unilaterally if the Palestinians' militant Hamas rulers don't renounce violence and recognize the Jewish state.
Earlier, at his new Cabinet's first meeting, Olmert said Israel would not allow illegal West Bank settlement outposts to remain, his office said.
"In every case where the law is violated, we will respond without compromise, and we won't reconcile ourselves to illegal facts on the ground," his office quoted him as telling his government, which was sworn in on Thursday.
On Sunday, Israeli forces evicted 41 settlers from a Palestinian home they illegally occupied in the West Bank city of Hebron.
A government-commissioned report issued last year said settlers have set up 105 unauthorized outposts in the past decade, in a bid to break up Palestinian areas and try to prevent establishment of a Palestinian state.
Many are near existing, authorized settlements, in effect extending their reach.
Israel promised the U.S. to dismantle about two dozen outposts set up since Ariel Sharon was first elected prime minister in March 2001, but little action has been taken.
In February, while head of a caretaker government, Olmert ordered the evacuation of unauthorized buildings in the West Bank outpost of Amona, an operation that turned violent and left 200 settlers and police injured.
Separately, Israel's new defense minister, Amir Peretz, told the Cabinet that he has instructed security forces to ease travel restrictions for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, issue more permits for Palestinians to work in Israel, and to allow greater freedomon of movement for Palestinian merchants.
Travel restrictions and a sharp reduction in work permits for Palestinian laborers has deepened the misery in the West Bank and Gaza that has accompanied five years of fighting.