ehud olmert 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
After four months of filling in for Ariel Sharon, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert moved into the Prime Minister's Office on Sunday, vowing to redefine Israel's borders and crack down on illegal Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank.
"In the next few years, we will change Israel's character to ensure it will be a state with a solid Jewish majority living within defensible borders that can provide security to its residents and separate us from those who must live alongside us and not among us," he said at a ceremony marking his move.
Olmert, who headed a caretaker government since Sharon was felled by a massive stroke on January 4, had previously refrained from moving into the Prime Minister's Office in deference to the comatose leader, maintaining his previous office in the more modest Industry and Trade Ministry while he served first as acting prime minister and then as interim prime minister.
Indeed, the ceremony marking his move into Sharon's office, attended by his wife Aliza, scores of office workers from governments past and present and close friends, was marked with nostalgia and longing for the former prime minister.
"If we could ensure that Ariel Sharon would be here, I would wait without any problems as much time as was required before entering this building," Olmert said. "However, Arik is not here and our prayers and longing are with him."
At the new government's first cabinet meeting earlier in the morning, coming on the heels of the forced eviction of three Jewish squatter families in Hebron, Olmert reiterated that the government would not accept lawlessness in the territories.
"Wherever the law is violated, wherever there is illegal squatting and wherever there are attempts to determine these kinds of facts, we will respond immediately, without compromise," he told the cabinet, according to a government communique.
"We have reiterated that we will not countenance the illegal determination of facts and violations of the law anywhere, certainly not in these sensitive areas."
Olmert has taken a harsher stance than Sharon in cracking down on illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, as was first seen during February's razing of illegal structures at the Amona outpost, a controversial operation which left 200 people injured.
Concomitantly, he pledged to push ahead with his convergence plan, which would see the forced evacuation of residents from scores of isolated West Bank settlements, while strengthening the major settlement blocs.
Olmert indicated that he will act unilaterally if the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority government sticks to its refusal to recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept previous peace agreements.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz told the cabinet that a closure imposed on the West Bank two months ago due to security warnings over impending terror attacks was being gradually eased. Acting on the recommendation of security officials, Peretz approved the entry of 12,000 Palestinian workers in a move that he said was aimed at both enabling the Palestinian population to have a respectable daily life and preventing Israelis from being harmed.
He did not say if there had been a decrease in the number of terror alerts which led to the move at this time.
By mid-afternoon Sunday, Olmert's office was already feeding television stations silent footage of the premier at work in his office, where he was seen receiving a military briefing while adjusting the office computer. The office, now bereft of Sharon's chair which was sent to his Sycamore Ranch, has been adorned with Olmert family photos.
Meanwhile, at the conclusion of the changing of the guard ceremony at the Prime Minister's Office, Olmert tried to put the best face on the somewhat awkward situation in his address to office workers: "You can ask the guys at the Finance Ministry, at the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry and at the Jerusalem Municipality - it's not terrible to work with me."