Ariel Sharon’s unilateral evacuation from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank is “just the beginning” of Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from other territories, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday.

Olmert, whose statements are considered closely aligned with Sharon’s policy, made the statements while touring the settlements of Nili and Na’ale, which risk being cut off from the rest of Israel by the security barrier.

“The four settlements the government intends to evacuate in northern Samaria within the framework of the disengagement plan will not be the only ones,” Olmert reportedly said. “If we find ourselves in a long-standing process, we will evacuate many settlements, not necessarily out of desire but out of rising necessity to minimize our friction with the world [over the Palestinian issue].”

Olmert acknowledged that “the U.S. acts as a buffer blocking sanctions that could be deadly to Israel” and warned that “the occupation is eroding Israel’s stance in the world.”

He said that Israel has “not revealed the cards it has for Judea and Samaria. We are maintaining a policy of ambiguity,” leaving the world in expectation.

Sharon claimed he was shocked by Olmert’s comments, which he maintains are at odds with his government’s policy. Sharon’s associates said the prime minister was angry about the diplomatic and political damage Olmert’s statements could cause at a time when the international community is considering sanctions against Israel and Sharon is to face a challenge from the right at Wednesday’s Likud convention.

“Where did he get this nonsense?” Sharon said when he was told of the statements. “There is no plan other than the disengagement plan. What Olmert said is against my position and we have no intention of getting into such ideas.”

Olmert’s statements are often coordinated with Sharon to “test the waters” of potential future Israeli government initiatives. Olmert was the first to go public with Sharon’s plan to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

Some Israeli politicians and American Jewish leaders are worried Sharon plans to later evacuate other settlements, and possibly parts of Jerusalem, and that he is using Olmert’s statements to gauge the domestic and international response to such possibilities.

In June, Olmert told the Jerusalem Post he is willing to cede Israeli control over at least six Arab neighborhoods that lie on the periphery of Jerusalem. He named Isawiya – adjacent to the city’s French Hill neighborhood – the nearby Shuafat refugee camp, Anata, the northern village of Kfar Akab, and Sur Bahir and Umm Tuba, on the city’s southeastern rim.

“Jerusalem is dear to me, but one must not lose sight of proportions over peripheral areas we do not need,” Olmert said.

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