Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ignited a political firestorm by linking the conflict in Lebanon to his plan to withdraw from much of the West Bank.
Some Israeli West Bank settlers were so outraged they said they would refuse to fight.
Olmert later retreated from a face-off with his domestic opponents, saying in a statement he was focusing on Lebanon and appealing for “complete unity of the army and the home front to win this difficult war” with the Hezbollah militia.
In his first interview since fighting broke out three weeks ago, Olmert said yesterday the outcome would boost his proposal to separate from the Palestinians in the West Bank – unilaterally, if necessary.
The plan, which was the core of Olmert’s platform in elections in March, calls for an Israel withdrawal from most of the West Bank while consolidating large Israeli settlement blocs, effectively drawing a permanent border. Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast War.
Olmert’s domestic programme was put on hold after Hezbollah guerrillas attacked an Israeli border position on July 12, capturing two soldiers and killing three. The attack prompted a massive Israeli response.
“I’ll surprise you,” Olmert said. “I genuinely believe that the outcome of the present turmoil and the emergence of a new order that will provide more stability and will defeat the forces of terror, will help create the necessary environment that will allow me ... to create a new momentum between us and the Palestinians.”
“We want to separate from the Palestinians. We want to help create a reality that will allow the Palestinians to fulfil their lifelong dream of having an independent state alongside the state of Israel in a contiguous territory,” he said.
“All this has to be done. I’m ready to do it. I’m ready to cope with these demands. It’s not easy, it’s very difficult, but we are elected to our positions to do things and not sit idle,” he added.
Israeli settlers and right-wing politicians exploded in anger over what they called Olmert’s manipulation of the Lebanon conflict for his political agenda.
“Olmert has lost his way. He has shot soldiers in the back in the midst of the assault,” settler leader Pinhas Wallerstein was quoted as saying.
The opposition Likud Party said Olmert’s comment “drives a wedge deep into the heart of the consensus” over the Lebanon war.
Columnist Ben Caspit wrote in the Maariv daily that Olmert’s remark was “a combination of leadership folly, characteristic arrogance, pathological stubbornness and extreme insensitivity.”
Effi Eitam, of the National Union party, spoke with Olmert after receiving phone calls from reserve soldiers around the country threatening to refuse to serve in Lebanon.
Olmert made “a tremendous mistake and was irresponsible” in raising the West Bank plan, Eitam said today, but he said the dispute should be put aside until later.
After speaking to Eitam, Olmert issued a statement late yesterday saying he is “dealing only with managing Israel’s conflict in south Lebanon, which has nothing to do with future political measures in other areas.”
“He’s trying to lower the profile of what he said and minimise the damage,” Eitam said.
Olmert devised the West Bank withdrawal plan after Israel unilaterally ended its occupation of the Gaza Strip one year ago, dismantling settlements and removing 8,000 settlers – some of them by force.
Settlers say the Hezbollah raid on the Israeli outpost that triggered the latest conflict with Lebanon – along with a similar raid by Hamas-linked militants in June that led to renewed fighting in Gaza – proved that the Gaza withdrawal was a mistake, and that a unilateral West Bank pullout would be an even greater blunder.