Israeli Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in an interview published Thursday that the government should pull settlers and soldiers from additional areas of the West Bank after the partial withdrawal planned for next year.
But a spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said there were no plans for further evacuations after the pullout from all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank.
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 Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who is widely favored to win the election for Palestinian Authority president next month. Abbas, considered a pragmatist, has made it clear that he hopes to revive 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 withdrawal from the West Bank more pointedly than the prime minister. Olmert, who has previously floated trial balloons to gauge reaction to possible shifts in government policies, spoke publicly of abandoning settlements before Sharon did last year.
But after Olmert's interview appeared Thursday, Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin said there had been no change in government policy.
"There is only one disengagement plan, which will be implemented according to schedule," Gissin said.
Sharon has said the Gaza pullout could help pave the way for both sides to return to the U.S.-backed peace initiative known as the "road map," which stalled soon after it was launched 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 plan on track received a boost Thursday, when negotiators appeared to have removed a last-minute obstacle to bringing the left-leaning Labor Party into the government.
Labor leader Shimon Peres agreed to accept a Cabinet post as a vice premier but not serve as a stand-in for the prime minister. That task is 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 settler and troop withdrawal.
Sharon could present the new coalition to the parliament, or Knesset, as early as Monday.
The prime minister said he needed Labor to shore up his government to carry out the withdrawal, which is opposed by most settlers and their allies. Sharon fired the centrist Shinui Party this month in a dispute over the budget, leaving him with only Likud's 40 votes in the 120-member Knesset. With the addition of Labor's 22 seats, he will be able to muster a majority.
On Thursday, officials announced the first advance payment to an Israeli business that will relocate as part of the Gaza withdrawal, Israel Radio reported. The factory next to the Erez crossing between Gaza and Israel will move to the city of Ashkelon, about nine miles to the north.
Meanwhile, violence in the city of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip left five Palestinians dead. They included a 20-year-old man described by Palestinian officials as mentally disabled. Israel said it was investigating the report.
Early today, two more Palestinians were killed during an Israeli airstrike, Palestinian officials said.
The deaths brought to 10 the number of Palestinians killed during Israel's latest incursion into Khan Yunis to prevent militants from firing rockets into nearby neighboring settlements. At least 23 people have been injured.
Israeli military officials said the settlements had been hit by more than 55 mortar rounds and crude Kassam rockets during the last week.