Fri, May 05, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Olmert faces big challenges over Israel's borders

IN CHARGE The acting Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, was expected to be confirmed in his post yesterday and to outline his government's policies

AFP , JERUSALEM

Fatah militants train at a makeshift boot camp at the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip on Wednesday.

PHOTO: AP

Ehud Olmert, who was set to be confirmed as Israeli prime minister yesterday, is confronted with the huge task of fulfilling his pledge to redraw the country's borders as head of a four-party coalition.

Made acting prime minister when Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke on Jan. 4, Olmert will present for parliamentary approval his own 24-member Cabinet, formed after his centrist Kadima party came out on top in a March 28 election.

In the session, he was to highlight the main outlines of government policy with the Likud party head and leader of the parliamentary opposition bloc, Benjamin Netanyahu, to follow with his own address.

Formality

Members of parliament (MPs) will then vote to approve the new government, a mere formality given Olmert's majority support, after which the ministers will be sworn in.

They will take their seats at the Cabinet table and Olmert will occupy the prime minister's chair for the first time since Sharon was incapacitated four months ago.

Olmert's candidate for speaker, Kadima MP Dalia Yitzik, was also expected to be approved as the first woman to head the Jewish state's legislature.

The plenum follows four weeks of intensive talks between Kadima and the 11 other parties that won seats in parliament to cobble together a coalition with a working majority that is willing to withdraw from parts of the West Bank.

Yet the new government enjoys only a slender majority of 67 MPs in the 120-member Knesset, comprising Kadima's 29 deputies, 19 from the center-left Labour, 12 from the ultra-Orthodox Shas and seven from the Pensioners party.

As it stands, the narrow coalition renders the government extremely fragile, casting doubt over how well Olmert can implement his promise of fixing Israel's borders with the West Bank by 2008 and carry out far-reaching economic reforms.

His perceived lack of charisma, the new Hamas-led Palestinian government, uncertain international support and opposition from the powerful settler lobby could scupper his masterplan to effectively uproot 70,000 Jews from the West Bank.

Talks stalled for a broader majority of 84 MPs, which could have included the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu, the religious United Torah Judaism and the left-wing Meretz parties.

The Cabinet has also faced accusations of weakness given several new faces in senior portfolios, such as Labour leader Amir Peretz, a man with no military expertise and no ministerial experience, as defense minister.

Controversy has also swirled around the appointment of Rafi Eitan to the portfolio of pensioners affairs.

The former Mossad spy is wanted by the FBI over the scandal of US Jew Jonathan Pollard imprisoned for selling Pentagon secrets to Israel.

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