After three weeks of negotiations, Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has put together a coalition government that backs his plan to pull out of parts of the West Bank and draw Israel's final borders by 2010, officials said yesterday.
In the West Bank town of Tulkarem, meanwhile, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian woman while trying to arrest an Islamic Jihad militant hiding in the woman's apartment building, the army said. The soldiers fired at the house when they saw suspicious movement, killing the 41-year-old woman and wounding her two daughters, the army said. The army apologized for the shooting and said it was investigating.
In Israel, coalition talks ended late on Sunday when Olmert informed President Moshe Katsav he had formed a government that controls a majority in parliament.
Olmert's Kadima Party won a March election, but did not win enough seats in the 120-member parliament to rule alone. The agreement signed with the ultra-Orthodox Shas party late on Sunday, along with support from the left-center Labor Party and from the Pensioners' Party, gives Olmert a majority of 67 in parliament.
Labor and the Pensioners are expected to support Olmert's West Bank plan without hesitation. However, the hawkish Shas insisted that it not be forced to commit now to the program which would require the dismantling of dozens of Jewish settlements. Olmert is not expected to launch the plan for another year to 18 months.
If Shas were to back the pullout, the party could alienate its hard-line constituency, which opposes handing over parts of the West Bank to the Palestinians.
"The settlers will not forget that Shas turned its back on them at this difficult time, as Olmert's sword lies on the neck of the entire settlement enterprise," Yitzhak Levy, a lawmaker from the pro-settler National Religious Party, was quoted as saying in the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot.
But the dovish Meretz Party, which has so far not joined Olmert's government, could give parliamentary support to a West Bank withdrawal if Shas pulls out in coming months.
Changing the Border
In an initial push to draw Israel's borders, Olmert's Cabinet modified the route of the separation barrier on Sunday, putting thousands of Palestinians on the West Bank side of the structure.
Israel began construction of the barrier four years ago, saying it needed to keep suicide bombers out of the country. Olmert says the barrier will serve as the basis for Israel's final border with the West Bank, which Israel won from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war.
Israel has cut off all ties with the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, making unilateral action in the West Bank increasingly likely. Israel has said it will not have contact with the Hamas government unless it recognizes Israel, accepts past peace agreements and renounces violence.
Hamas has so far rejected the demands. However, a senior Hamas official, speaking by phone from an Israeli jail, said the group was seriously debating whether to accept a 2001 Arab peace initiative, which proposes the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The plan implies recognition of Israel.
The Hamas official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the debate is ongoing, said the group is unlikely to make a quick decision because it does not want to be seen as bowing to Western pressure.