Israeli Vice Premier Ehud Olmert said in an interview published today that Israel should pull settlers and soldiers from additional areas of the West Bank after the partial withdrawal planned for next year.
Israel has "no choice of sitting and doing nothing" after next year's planned withdrawal, Olmert told the Jerusalem Post. "Israel's interest requires a disengagement on a wider scale than what will happen as part of the current disengagement plan."
Olmert said Israel should be prepared for failure in negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas, who is widely favored to win election as president of the Palestinian Authority next month. Abbas, a pragmatist, has made clear his hopes to rekindle talks with Israel.
In case of a breakdown in negotiations, Olmert said, "Israel will continue to progress, by carrying out unilateral moves, including the possibility of further withdrawals that are in the interest of the state."
Olmert is a staunch Sharon ally who has advocated Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank more pointedly than the prime minister. He has floated trial balloons in the past for possible shifts in Sharon's thinking, and spoke publicly of abandoning settlements before Sharon did last year.
But after Olmert's interview today, Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin said there had been no change in the government's policy.
"There is only one disengagement plan, which will be implemented according to schedule," he said.
Sharon has said the Gaza pullout could help pave the way for both sides to return to the U.S.-backed diplomatic initiative known as the "road map," which stalled almost as soon as it was issued last year. Israel says the new Palestinian leadership first must crack down on militias that carry out attacks on Israelis.
"Once that will happen, that will enable us to turn to the road map and implement everything which is in the road map, according to the sequence of the road map," Sharon said last week during a visit by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Sharon's hopes for keeping the withdrawal on track got a boost today when negotiators appeared to have worked out a last-minute obstacle to bringing the left-leaning Labor Party into the government.
Labor leader Shimon Peres agreed that he would accept a Cabinet post as a vice premier but would not serve as a stand-in for the prime minister.
That task is already performed by Olmert and the legislative change required to create a second position with that authority could take weeks, holding up the formation of the coalition between Labor and Sharon's conservative Likud Party. Labor favors the withdrawal.
Sharon could present the new coalition to the Israeli parliament as early as Monday.
Sharon said he needed Labor to shore up his government in order to carry out the withdrawal, which is opposed by settlers and their allies. Sharon fired the centrist Shinui Party in a dispute over the budget this month, leaving him with only Likud's 40 votes in the 120-member parliament, or Knesset. With the addition of 22 seats controlled by Labor, he will be able to muster a majority.
Today, officials announced the first advance payment to an Israeli business that will relocate as part of the Gaza withdrawal, Israel Radio reported. The factory, which was not identified, will move from an industrial park next to the Erez crossing between Gaza and Israel to the city of Ashkelon, about nine miles to the north.
Meanwhile, violence in the city of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip left five Palestinians dead. The fatalities included a 20-year-old man described as mentally impaired, Palestinian officials said. Israel said it was investigating the report.
At least three of the dead were killed by missile fire from an unmanned Israeli drone today, according to Palestinian officials and witnesses.
The deaths brought to eight the number of Palestinians killed during Israel's latest incursion into Khan Younis to prevent militants from firing rockets into neighboring Jewish settlements. At least 23 people were injured.
Israeli military officials said the settlements have been hit by more than 55 mortars and crude Kassam rockets during the past week.
Six of the dead were fighters, according to militant groups.