Israeli Prime Minister Advised to Pull Out of West Bank by Close Confidant

One of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's closest confidants said Friday that Israel should withdraw from "most" of the West Bank in a negotiated deal with the Palestinians and that a previous plan for a major unilateral pullback was no longer viable.

Vice-premier Haim Ramon, one of the politicians closest to Olmert, told Israel Radio that he favored reducing the Israeli presence in the West Bank to the "large settlement blocs" and that NATO forces could replace Israeli troops in the areas evacuated.

"In my eyes, the occupation of the territories threatens our very existence, our legitimacy and our international standing," Ramon said in the radio interview.

The major blocs are in the northern and southern parts of the West Bank and to the east of Jerusalem. According to settlement watchdog Peace Now, more than 100,000 of the approximately 260,000 West Bank settlers live in these three clusters.

Ramon would not specify the scope of the pullout he envisaged, but said a plan floated by Olmert before his election in 2006 for a unilateral pullout from 90 percent of the West Bank was no longer a possibility, "certainly not in one step."

He said Israel's 2005 unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip was "an option of last resort" forced by the breakdown of talks with the Palestinians in 2000, and that the political situation has been transformed since Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' split last month with the radical Islamic Hamas. That split led to Abbas' installation of a government of Western-leaning moderates under former international banker Salam Fayyad.

The Palestinian Authority is now headed by "two people committed to negotiations and fighting terror," Ramon said.

"We have a partner. The moment there's a partner, we must renew negotiations with him and reach agreements," he said.

In an interview published Friday in the mass-circulation Israeli daily Maariv, Abbas praised Olmert and was upbeat about prospects for progress toward peace.

"I am optimistic, I work with Olmert," the paper quoted Abbas as saying. "We are about to meet every few weeks and move forward," he said.

The two leaders last met July 16, in Jerusalem. An official in Olmert's office said Friday no date or venue had so far been finalized for the next session.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is arriving next week for talks with Olmert and Abbas, but her office hasn't said if there will be a joint meeting of the three.

In an excerpt from the Maariv interview released Thursday, Abbas said both Rice and President Bush promised to push hard to conclude a Mideast agreement before Bush leaves the White House, in January 2009.

"I heard this with my own ears from the president himself and from Secretary of State Rice," Abbas told the paper. "They want to reach an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians in the next year." His aides confirmed those comments.

Aides to Olmert said Thursday he wants to formulate a declaration detailing what a Palestinian state in Gaza and most of the West Bank would look like. However, they hinted that it would leave out the most difficult issues, such as final borders and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

Abbas ejected Hamas from a coalition government after the group's fighters chased his Fatah forces out of the Gaza Strip last month in five days of brutal fighting.

Abbas aide Nabil Amr said Friday that security officials and field commanders deemed responsible for the defeat would face trial or disciplinary proceedings within the Fatah movement. More than a dozen people have already resigned from their posts, including Mohammed Dahlan, a former Gaza strongman who was not in Gaza during the fighting.

"There are those whom a court of law or justice will hold accountable, and there are those whom Fatah will handle," Amr said. He did not mention any names, but said some senior Fatah members could face disciplinary action.

The Hamas takeover of Gaza spurred a new round of diplomatic activity, with the international community lining up behind Abbas and his moderate government.

On Thursday, the government approved a platform that includes acceptance of all previous peace deals with Israel. Hamas' refusal to endorse the peace accords and renounce violence led to an international aid cutoff. The aid has been restored to Fayyad's government.