New Israeli Government Plans to Revise Borders

Israel's new government takes office Thursday. Linda Gradstein reports on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's plan for Israel to withdraw from parts of the West Bank and redraw Israel's borders by 2010.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. Israel's new government is sworn in today. There's a plan to withdraw from parts of the West Bank and to set Israel's permanent borders within the next four years.

Incoming Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says by withdrawing from parts of the West Bank, Israel will be able to maintain its Jewish majority. He also called on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to return to the negotiating table. NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

Four months to the day after former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a massive stroke, Ehud Olmert presented his new government to the Israeli Parliament. Olmert formed a coalition with the center left labor party, the Pensioners Party, and the ultra orthodox Shass party, for a majority of 67 seats in the 120-seat parliament.

There are a lot of firsts in this government. For the first time in decades, there are no former generals in high positions. The incoming defense minister, Labor's Amir Peretz, is a veteran trade union leader. It's the first government with a female parliament speaker.

The new foreign minister is also a woman, Tsipy Livney, a lawyer and rising star in Israeli politics. And Ehud Olmert hopes his will become the first Israeli government to carry out a substantial withdrawal from the West Bank. Despite what he called the pain and difficult that entails, because of the presence of so many Jewish settlers in the occupied territory.

Prime Minister EHUD OLMERT (Acting Prime Minister, Israel): (Through translator) Even if the Jewish eye fills with tears and the heart is torn, we must safeguard the principle. We must keep a solid and stable Jewish majority in our state.

GRADSTEIN: That means, Olmert said, an Israeli withdrawal from dozens of small, isolated Jewish settlements in the West Bank. He told parliament the larger settlement blocks closer to the pre-1967 border will forever remain part of Israel. That policy is unacceptable to the Palestinians, who want Israel to withdraw completely from the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Olmert said, he hopes to restart negotiations with the Palestinians, but he repeated Israel's demands that the Palestinians dismantle what he called the terrorist infrastructure. And he also reiterated Israel's commitment not to have any dealings with the new Hamas government until it recognizes Israel and renounces violence. Olmert said Israel prefers a negotiated solution, but will not wait indefinitely.

Incoming Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog said the new government has a lot to deal with.

Mr. ISAAC HERZOG (Minister of Tourism, Israel): The government will face major change--major challenges, both in the front with the Palestinians, the Iranian threat for the international peace and order, and, of course, social communications that we must tackle in order to change the direction of the Israel into a better future.

GRADSTEIN: Herzog says he's confident the government can meet these challenges. But some Israeli analysts, like Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University are not so sure. Steinberg says that with a narrow, and on some issues uncertain, majority in parliament, it won't be easy for Olmert to carry out the planned withdraw.

Professor GERALD STEINBERG (Professor of Political Studies, Bar-Ilan University): This is not a strong government. It's not a strong prime minister. The leaders are on trial. We've got a defense minister who's a labor union leader who has no security experience. So, in some ways, you'd have to predict this government will not perform very well and may not last very long--meaning a year or two. And we may be back to elections.

GRADSTEIN: But Olmert says he's confident he can draw Israel's final borders in the next four years. He hopes to get American support, as well. Later this month, he will meet with President Bush at the White House to present details of his plan.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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