In an interview published in the Jerusalem Post on Thursday, Olmert said Israeli's interest was in a wider scale pullout from the occupied territories, more so than "what will happen as part of the current disengagement plan".

 

A significant percentage of Israelis are opposed to any pullout from the occupied territories, but Olmert added: "There is no option of sitting and doing nothing."

 

Although Prime Minister Ariel Sharon plans to take back all of the 8000 Jewish colonists illegally settled in Gaza by September 2005, he has no plans to resettle hundreds of thousands of colonists illegally settled in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

 

New willingness

 

Sharon originally intended to implement disengagement on a unilateral basis but has since been indicating a willingness to coordinate the Gaza pullout with the new Palestinian leadership.

 

However, Olmert said there were no guarantees that Palestinian Liberation Organisation chairman Mahmud Abbas, favourite to win a presidential election on 9 January, would prove to be an acceptable partner. 

 

Olmert has previously criticised Abbas' uncompromising stance on his vision for an independent Palestine, based on all the territory occupied by Israel since 1967 with East Jerusalem as its capital. 

 

"We could very well have negotiations [with Abbas] and these negotiations will break down, but Israel will continue to progress, by carrying out unilateral moves, including the possibility of further withdrawals that are in the interest of the state," he said.

 

Abbas has called for an end to the armed Palestinian uprising but Olmert said he had yet to prove his ability to crack down on resistance groups such as Hamas, or to build democratic institutions within the Palestinian Authority.