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A settler will be key to Kadima's plans to abandon settlements

JERUSALEM—At the center of Ehud Olmert's plan to close down many Jewish settlements on the West Bank is a most unlikely advocate: Otniel Schneller, a 54-year-old Israeli who helped found one of those settlements a quarter century ago.

As one of Kadima's new lawmakers, Schneller has been charged with the daunting task of deciding which settlements—including his own—should be scrapped. Then he must persuade his fellow settlers that the plan is in the best interests of Israel.

Schneller believes he knows what to do. "Nobody else knows how to deal with them," he said.

Over the coming months, Schneller will be perusing the maps, assessing alternatives and presenting proposals. Through it all, Schneller says, he is keeping one date in mind: Jan. 20, 2009, the final day of the Bush administration.

By then, Israel will have had enough time to see if the radical Palestinian group Hamas, which now controls the Palestinian government, will change its hard-line views. If not, and Israel decides to redraw its own borders, Israel would rather work with Bush to win the necessary international backing for the redrawing than with an unknown and perhaps less supportive new U.S. president.

"This timetable is very clear to everybody," Schneller said. "We need full support of the world."

As a settler, Schneller concedes that the movement is now paying the price for having pushed for expanding settlements without first winning the political support of other groups. As a result, the settlers' movement appeared uncompromising to many Israelis. Now the movement needs to recognize political realities.

"We lost the people," he said. "We forgot to look behind us. We feel, as pioneers, that we run very far, very high, but during that time we lost our people behind us. The main reason that I went to be involved with this subject was to try to take our people back to the center of the (political) map."

In Schneller's ideal world, Israel would embark on a nationwide discussion over the next year or two that will lead to a broad consensus—especially among settlers_ that the pullout is the best thing for the Jewish nation.

Without such consensus, Schneller fears, the fissures between settlers and other Israelis could threaten Israel's future.

"When Israel starts to fight inside, all the Middle East will be Islamic," he said.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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