Israel's acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said Tuesday that he was prepared to give up parts of the [disputed] West Bank in order to secure peace with the Palestinians and ensure his nation's status as a Jewish state.
Speaking on the eve of today's Palestinian election, in which Islamist militants are expected to be elected to the Palestinian parliament for the first time, Olmert said Israel could not hang on to all of the West Bank.
"In order to ensure the existence of a Jewish national homeland, we will not be able to continue ruling over the territories in which the majority of the Palestinian population lives," Olmert said in a nationally televised speech, his first major foreign policy address since taking over from the ailing Ariel Sharon, who remains in a coma three weeks after suffering a stroke.
Olmert highlighted his commitment to the long-stalled U.S.-backed road map for peace, which charts out a series of steps leading to the creation of a Palestinian state.
Olmert said Israel was working to meet its end of the bargain by preparing to roust Israelis living in illegal West Bank settlements. He called on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to do his part by dismantling armed militias, including gunmen loyal to Hamas.
If talks with the Palestinians fail, Olmert suggested that he would be willing to follow Sharon's course and take unilateral steps to define Israel's borders. Sharon started that course with a pullout of all Israeli settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip.
"If our expected partners in the negotiations in the framework of the road map do not uphold their commitments, we will preserve the Israeli interest in every way," Olmert said.
To say you have to 100 percent bring about an end to all violence and you have to completely disarm all the militant groups is an impossibility, in my opinion, and can be used as a subterfuge to prevent peace talks.
Former President Jimmy Carter, who's leading an international delegation of election monitors, said that the demands on Abbas to immediately and completely disarm militias were unrealistic.
"To say you have to 100 percent bring about an end to all violence and you have to completely disarm all the militant groups is an impossibility, in my opinion, and can be used as a subterfuge to prevent peace talks," Carter said.
While Carter praised Israel for pulling out of the Gaza Strip, he urged it not to continue to make unilateral decisions.
"Inherently, a unilateral declaration always favors the powerful one that makes the decision," he said. "And it is also something of a debilitating insult to the other side not to have a role in the decision that affects your own people."
In today's election, Islamic hard-liners aligned with Hamas are expected to win at least a third of the 132 seats in the new, expanded Palestinian Legislative Council.
Early surveys showed Hamas and the long-dominant Fatah party in a close contest, but final ones showed Fatah apparently gaining some momentum in the campaign's waning days.
Hamas does not recognize Israel's right to exist, but has not stressed this point in its campaign platform.
Israel and other countries have warned the Palestinian Authority that they will cut off political and economic ties if members of Hamas are included in the new Cabinet unless they renounce violence and accept a two-state solution.
"In the elections tomorrow, and in the steps which will follow, they will have to decide: whether to take their fate into their hands or to again leave the key in the hands of the extremists, those who led them from bad to worse and condemned them to a life of misery and suffering," Olmert said.
What role Hamas decides to play in the new government will be determined by how well it fares in the election and whether it would prefer to serve as an opposition party in the parliament rather than accept Cabinet appointments.
Militant leaders in some Palestinian cities who are upset about losing power and influence have threatened to attack polling sites. On Tuesday, an election worker with Fatah was shot and killed in Nablus in an apparent dispute over placement of campaign posters.
Hundreds of election observers were expected to fan out across the region on Wednesday. One of the main outside groups monitoring the vote wasn't expected to send anyone to the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah, however, because it has become a center of chaos, lawlessness and kidnapping.