'Isolated settlements endanger us'

Olmert: Negotiated deal is preferable; Netanyahu calls government 'bloated.'

ehud olmert 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
ehud olmert 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Incoming Prime Minister Ehud Olmert laid out his vision for Israel's future borders in a major policy speech to the Knesset on Thursday, saying that settlements in Judea and Samaria put Israel in danger. He said however, that Israel would maintain control over large settlement blocs forever. "I also dreamt in the past that the day would not come when we would have to give up parts of the Land of Israel," he said. Olmert said he preferred to reach a deal with the Palestinians through negotiations based on the internationally-backed "road map" peace plan. But if that failed he would act unilaterally to create "desirable" borders for Israel, which would be significantly different from the current borders. Finances were a running trend as opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu leveled sharp criticism at the new government, calling it "bloated" and "wasteful." When the international trend is for governments to get smaller, "tiny Israel's is getting bigger," said Netanyahu. "To paraphrase Churchill, 'Never has so much been owed by so few to so many,'" he added, referring to the Cabinet's record size of 24 ministers, with six more expected when and if United Torah Judaism joins the governing coalition. Olmert called on Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to lead the Palestinians back to the negotiating table with Israel, but said Israel would not negotiate under any terms with the Hamas-led PA in its present form. He said last summer's pullout from the Gaza Strip and the dismantling of four small northern West Bank settlements was a first step, but Israel needed to separate itself from the more than two million Palestinians in the West Bank if it wanted to maintain its character as both a Jewish and democratic state. "The continuation of the scattered settlements throughout the West Bank creates an inseparable mix of populations that will threaten the existence of the state of Israel as a Jewish state," said Olmert. "There has never been a government among all the governments of Israel that has given up on so much from the start," countered Netanyahu, referring to Olmert's convergence plan. He said that he did not see the need for or purpose of such a plan, noting that the disengagement had done nothing to "weaken Hamas or push away the Kassams," and had in fact accomplished the opposite. He went on to remind his audibly grumbling audience that the convergence plan would cost money - "not millions, not tens of millions, but billions of shekels." Netanyahu also wished incoming defense minister Amir Peretz good luck at his new post, saying that there was much to be done to make the military industries more profitable for the state. With a nod toward incoming finance minister Avraham Hirchson, Netanyahu also said that there was a huge need for sweeping financial reforms. But, he lamented, he doubted that the coalition would stand behind the changes needed in the two ministries. AP contributed to this report.