Majority of Israel Cabinet may back Gaza pullout

Sharon seems to have won support for revised plan, deputy premier suggests

May 26, 2004|By Jeffrey Fleishman | Jeffrey Fleishman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appears to have swayed the majority of his Cabinet to support a revised plan to stagger the withdrawal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert suggested yesterday.

Sharon is expected to present the new plan to the Cabinet on Sunday. Olmert told Israeli army radio that Sharon had the probable backing of 12 ministers - the narrow majority he needs. The development came as Sharon's political standing was strengthened by reports that he may avoid indictment on bribery charges.

Sharon's first plan calling for an immediate "disengagement" from Gaza, including evacuating 7,500 settlers, was endorsed by the Bush administration as a way to rejuvenate the peace process. But it was rejected in a referendum by Sharon's conservative Likud Party.

Staggered withdrawal

Details of the revised plan have not been released, but it envisions a withdrawal in stages. It is unknown whether key Cabinet officials such as Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom support the plan.

In the radio interview, Olmert said Sharon had 11 firm votes in the 23-member Cabinet, adding that he believed he could get one more. But Olmert would not identify the 12th minister.

"One man is missing," Olmert said. "I understand that it seems that we have already got this minister. ... I assume it will be possible to convince at least one more minister."

A senior Israeli official said: "If Minister Olmert says the votes are there, he probably knows. Let's put it this way: After the Cabinet ministers receive a draft of the proposal on Thursday and assess it, then we'll know better. One thing I can tell you, Sharon will not present a plan that will not be approved."

Welfare Minister Zevulun Orlev, a member of the National Religious Party, said his party "will prevent the uprooting of settlements, even if this means we'll have to vote against the plan."

Four stages

The revised proposal, according to the senior official, calls for a four-stage pullout that includes isolated settlements scattered throughout Gaza, others concentrated in the north and south of the seaside strip, and four settlements in the Jenin area of the West Bank.

The Cabinet ministers would be asked to approve the overall framework and then each of the four stages. This formula, according to the official, will give ministers more control over the plan if Palestinian attacks or political events place it in jeopardy.

Egyptian leaders have said that during the evacuations, they would help train Palestinian security forces and plug supply routes used by Palestinian militants. Israel has just completed a military operation in Rafah that it said was aimed at finding militants and closing weapons-smuggling tunnels.

More than 40 Palestinians were killed and dozens were injured in the campaign, which drew sharp international criticism.

There is a possibility that if militant attacks against Jews in Gaza are stopped, Israel may allow Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to move beyond his compound in Ramallah, where he has been sequestered for two years. The Egyptians also want a committee of Palestinian, Egyptian, Israeli and U.S. officials to oversee the withdrawal.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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