JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Sunday it was time to consider offering compensation to Jewish settlers who volunteer to leave parts of the West Bank that Israel would hand to the Palestinians in a statehood deal.
Olmert said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting that a “compensation-evacuation” plan would be debated at the session for the first time. But officials said the discussion was postponed after ministers became embroiled in a separate issue.
“With serious negotiations (with the Palestinians) under way that evidently could at some stage lead to decisions, including removing residents from their places of abode, we should start to look at what this all means,” Olmert told the cabinet.
Later in the day, police are expected to announce whether they recommend indicting Olmert on corruption charges, a step that will culminate months of investigation but have no immediate impact on his tenure.
The clock is already winding down on Olmert’s troubled premiership. He has said he would quit after his centrist Kadima party elects a new leader on September 17, but he could remain prime minister for weeks or months until a new government is formed.
The compensation plan promoted by Olmert’s deputy, Haim Ramon, would buy out settlers who agree, before implementing any peace deal with the Palestinians, to leave settlements located beyond the barrier Israel is building in the occupied West Bank.
They would be resettled elsewhere in the territory, in enclaves the Israeli government has said it intends to keep in any final peace accord, or in Israel itself.
About 70,000 settlers live east of the barrier, a project Israel calls a security necessity and Palestinians describe as a land grab.
Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have pledged to press ahead with efforts to reach a deal before U.S. President George W. Bush leaves the White House in January.
But Abbas said on Friday he doubted a full peace agreement with Israel could be achieved this year.
The issue of settlement expansion in the West Bank has clouded the U.S.-brokered peace talks.
In the latest project, the Israeli government published on Sunday a notice asking for bids to build 32 housing units in the settlement of Betar Ilit in the West Bank. The settlement is in an enclave Israel intends to keep.
Some 500,000 Jews live on West Bank land captured by Israel in a 1967 war, including Arab East Jerusalem. The areas are home to some 2.5 million Palestinians.
The YESHA settler’s council, an umbrella group for Israelis living in the West Bank, has responded to the compensation plan by calling for “the evacuation of Olmert’s government — including Haim Ramon — from public life”.
Israel removed 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip, paying them compensation, when it quit the territory in 2005.