JERUSALEM -- Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday he wants to resume final peace talks with the Palestinians and take harsh action against Israeli squatters in the West Bank -- a sign the election front-runner is ready for bold steps to end the conflict.
His first policy statement carries special weight because of a widespread assumption among Israelis that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who had a stroke Jan. 4, will never return to power and that Olmert will replace him.
Hospital officials reported no change yesterday in Sharon's condition: critical, stable, and comatose.
Olmert, a 60-year-old former mayor of Jerusalem and the vice premier under Sharon, has a commanding lead in the polls for the March 28 election, putting him in a strong position to begin carrying out Sharon's vision of delineating Israel's final borders.
But Sharon's way was unilateral -- he pulled Israel out of Gaza last summer with minimal coordination with the Palestinians, whom he viewed as unreliable negotiating partners.
Flanked by reporters after meeting President Moshe Katsav of Israel, Olmert said that after parliamentary elections -- the Palestinians vote Jan. 25 -- ''I hope . . . I can enter negotiations with Abu Mazen," referring to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas by his nickname.
The talks would be for ''a permanent peace agreement between us and the Palestinians," he said.
Olmert reiterated Sharon's policy that any talks should be based on the internationally backed ''road map" peace plan, which calls for creation of a Palestinian state and outlines steps, so far unrealized, for the two sides to abandon conflict.
Olmert placed the same caveat on the talks as Sharon did: that the Palestinians disarm militant groups that carried out scores of suicide bombings in Israel.
Still, Olmert is thought to be more amenable to negotiations than Sharon.
He was a leading voice of moderation during Sharon's premiership, despite an earlier hawkish reputation.
US Senator John F. Kerry, on a one-day visit to meet Olmert and a top aide to Abbas, said Palestinian leaders shouldn't admit the militant Islamic group Hamas into the government no matter how many votes the faction wins unless Hamas truly renounces terror.
''The Palestinian Authority has an opportunity, hopefully, to set a new course for itself," Kerry said.
Olmert's conciliatory tone yesterday extended to the issue of Palestinian voting in East Jerusalem.
Israel has been reluctant to allow Arabs to vote there for fear it could it weaken its claim to all of the holy city, but the Israeli Cabinet voted Sunday to allow limited voting.
That decision was wise because ''we certainly have an interest in preserving the link between the residents of East Jerusalem and a Palestinian state, and not the state of Israel," Olmert said.
He said he did not want Israel to be blamed for the cancellation of the Palestinian election after Abbas made it clear there would be no voting if East Jerusalem were excluded.
Olmert has spoken often of trying to reduce the number of Arabs under Israeli control, fearing that the Arabs, with their higher birthrate, would outnumber Jews.
His comments yesterday appeared to leave open the possibility that the 230,000 Arabs in East Jerusalem would one day not be part of Israel.
He has said Israel cannot hope to hold on to the entire eastern sector, claimed by the Palestinians as their future capital.
But aides say he opposes giving it all up, especially the walled Old City, with its key holy sites of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.
Olmert said Israel would deal forcefully with Israeli squatters who took over an abandoned Palestinian market in the West Bank city of Hebron and clashed with police sent to evict them.
He said the harsh line would apply not only to illegal settlers in Hebron, but also to Israelis who have moved into other unauthorized West Bank outposts.
''There will be no hesitation," he said. ''Those who raise a hand against a soldier or policeman will be punished with all force, and will be removed from any place where they are illegal."