JERUSALEM - Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expects to draw Israel's permanent borders by 2010, and as part of that effort, will build a controversial settlement outside Jerusalem, he said in an interview published Thursday.
Olmert, whose Kadima Party is the clear front-runner in the March 28 election, told The Jerusalem Post daily that within four years, he intended to "get to Israel's permanent borders, whereby we will completely separate from the majority of the Palestinian population and preserve a large and stable Jewish majority in Israel."
Olmert adviser Avi Dichter had disclosed that time frame earlier this week, but this was the first time Olmert had publicly stated it.
Olmert said Israel would act unilaterally to set its borders if Hamas militants - poised to take control of the Palestinian Authority - didn't renounce their violent campaign against Israel and accept the guidelines of an internationally backed peace plan within a "reasonable time."
Should Hamas resist, he said, "we will need to begin to act."
Olmert said his broad guidelines for Israel's borders included incorporating its three major settlement blocs - Maaleh Adumim and Gush Etzion outside Jerusalem, and Ariel, deep inside the West Bank. Borders would also include Jerusalem and its immediate environs, and the Jordan River Valley, which Olmert characterized as a "security border."
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat urged Olmert to return to the negotiating table.
"Unilateralism and dictation will only add to the complexities and will not solve problems," Erekat said.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has stated his interest in resuming long-stalled negotiations. But Olmert told The Jerusalem Post he had no intention of meeting Abbas after Israel's elections because he sees him as part and parcel of a Palestinian Authority dominated by Hamas.
The militant group is in the process of forming a Cabinet it expects to install within weeks. On Thursday, a spokesman in Gaza, Mushir al-Masri, said Hamas would take over the key ministries - finance, foreign affairs and the interior, which oversees some security forces.
That announcement, and a new round of inconclusive coalition talks with Abbas' ousted Fatah Party on Thursday, indicated Fatah was unlikely to join a Hamas government.
Olmert also said in the interview that Israel would build controversial housing on West Bank land between Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim, Israel's largest settlement, as part of its border-setting.
Palestinians object to the planned construction of 3,650 housing units because it would cut off Jerusalem from the West Bank and kill their dreams to set up a capital there. Last year, Israel froze the plan under pressure from Washington, which sees it as an obstacle to peacemaking.
Olmert's declaration to reactivate the plan could help him to rebuff attacks from his main political rival, Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, as elections draw near. Netanyahu has repeatedly said the construction freeze raises doubts about the government's resolve to strengthen Jerusalem and major settlement blocs.
A senior government official said Israel had never given up its plans to build the project, while adding construction could take years.
"It is inconceivable that Israel would relinquish control of the ... area and drive a wedge between Maaleh Adumim and Jerusalem," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because construction hasn't begun.
A U.S. Embassy spokesman had no comment on Olmert's remarks.
Erekat said construction "absolutely undermines any prospects for a future peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis."
New polls, meanwhile, showed continued erosion of Kadima's lead before the elections, although the party still has roughly double the support of its nearest rival, the dovish Labor.
Kadima has lost ground over corruption allegations, including one against Olmert that has been discredited.
The Dahaf Research Institute poll conducted Wednesday gave Kadima 37 of parliament's 120 seats - down one from the previous survey, and down six from a Feb. 10 peak of 43. Labor remained stable at 20, and Likud, which takes a hard line against the Palestinians, lost one seat, to 14. The survey of 700 people had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
According to a survey of 500 people on Wednesday by TNS/Teleseker, Kadima would receive 38 seats, down one. Labor would win 19, down two, and Likud would take 17, down one. The margin of error was 4.4 percentage points.
A Dialog survey of 605 people, conducted Tuesday, showed Kadima steady at 37 seats; Labor unchanged at 19, and Likud up two to 17. The survey had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
Despite the slippage, Olmert spoke confidently of victory.
"The question of who will win the election has already been decided," Olmert told Kadima activists. "Now the question is whether we will be strong enough to do everything we want to do."
Also Thursday, Israel reopened the vital Karni cargo crossing between Gaza and Israel, after a two-week closure. Karni is critical for the Palestinian economy because it is the only conduit for Palestinian exports, and the main gateway for goods entering Gaza. Its closure caused hardships for ordinary Palestinians, who reported food shortages, as well as for farmers and merchants.
Israel said it shut the passage - after having closed it for three weeks beginning in mid-January - because it had warnings of attacks by Palestinian militants there. Palestinians think the closure was retribution for Hamas' victory in Palestinian elections in January.