JERUSALEM (May. 4)
Exactly four months after assuming Israel’s top office amid tragedy, Ehud Olmert has been confirmed as prime minister, and hopes to lead the Jewish state to security, if not peace. Olmert was sworn in Thursday, along with his Cabinet, after the Knesset approved the coalition government he formed to push through a plan for withdrawing from swathes of the West Bank and setting Israel’s borders, unilaterally if necessary in the absence of peace talks with the Palestinians.
In his address to fellow lawmakers, Olmert had fond words for Ariel Sharon, the former prime minister struck down by a stroke Jan. 4. But Olmert soon made clear he intended to be no less of a statesman, following up on last year’s pullout from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank with even more sweeping moves in the West Bank.
“Even when everything around him was stormy and turbulent, Arik remained in the eye of the storm, quiet and confident, his hand holding the wheel steady and focused,” Olmert said. “The disengagement from the Gaza Strip and Northern Samaria was an essential first step in this direction, but the main part is still ahead.”
He continued, “Partition of the land for the purpose of guaranteeing a Jewish majority is the lifeline of Zionism. I know how hard it is, especially for the settlers and those faithful to Eretz Yisrael, but I am convinced, with all my heart, that it is necessary and that we must do it with dialogue, internal reconciliation and broad consensus.”
Israeli media reports said Olmert’s plan to evacuate some 60,000 settlers from isolated West Bank communities while annexing major settlement blocs could get under way within two years.
The prime minister extended an olive branch to the Palestinian Authority — he is expected to meet in late May with P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas — but with the P.A.’s Hamas-led government refusing to renounce terrorism, few expect a peace accord.
“The State of Israel is prepared to wait for this necessary change in the Palestinian Authority,” Olmert said. “That said, we will not wait forever. The State of Israel does not want to, nor can it, suspend the fateful decisions regarding its future until the Palestinian Authority succeeds in implementing the commitments it undertook in the past.”
With its three partner factions, Olmert’s centrist Kadima Party controls 67 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, a narrow majority that will be tested by the prospect of another pullout.
Among the 49 lawmakers who voted against the government were both the right-wing Likud Party, which leads the political opposition, and Israeli Arab factions — an unusual alliance suggesting that Olmert will be criticized as being both too soft and too tough on the Palestinians.
But he received unequivocal support from Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu for tough words on arch-foe Iran and its nuclear program.
“The pursuit by this rogue and terror-sponsoring regime of nuclear weapons is currently the most dangerous global development, and the international community must do its utmost to stop it,” Olmert said. “The State of Israel, which the evil leaders in Tehran have turned into a target for annihilation, is not helpless and has the ability to defend itself against any threat.”