JERUSALEM - Faced with stiff opposition from within his own party, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is expected to present his divided Cabinet on Sunday with a less ambitious version of his plan to evacuate Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank.
Instead of uprooting the Gaza settlements all at once - a proposal that failed to win support from a majority of Sharon's fellow Likud Party members in a referendum earlier this month - the prime minister now proposes an exit from Gaza in four stages, each one requiring government approval.
The revised proposal was briefly outlined in a statement issued yesterday by Justice Minister Josef Lapid. It falls well short of the quick, complete pullout Sharon had promised the Bush administration, but might be the only way Sharon can win approval for a withdrawal and also keep his coalition government intact.
Officials and analysts said a staged withdrawal could be more palatable to Sharon's opponents on the right because it would offer them the chance of blocking the withdrawal at some point, while also testing Palestinian promises to prevent militant attacks.
Lapid said in his statement that Sharon will ask the Cabinet on Sunday to approve withdrawal from three of Gaza's 21 settlements - Netzarim, Rafiah Yam and Morag.
"Sharon also said he intends to announce that he does not give up his intention to evacuate the entire Gaza Strip, but because there is no majority in the government, he will present the limited plan," Lapid's statement said. It quoted Sharon as saying, "The choice is between a limited plan and nothing."
According to Israeli press reports, Sharon has support from 11 of the 23 Cabinet members. He spent yesterday lobbying for a 12th, deciding vote, focusing on three Likud members - Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Limor Livnat.
Spokesmen for Shalom and Livnat declined to comment on their positions. Uri Ginnosar, a spokesman for Netanyahu, said that the finance minister met with Sharon yesterday and urged the prime minister "not to bring the bigger plan, better a smaller plan that will satisfy most of the Likud members."
Ginnosar said that Netanyahu, a political rival of Sharon, has not made up his mind on the proposal. "We will have to see what the prime minister will bring," he said.
Sharon faces other obstacles as well. Members of the far-right National Union and National Religious parties are threatening to resign from the government if called upon to vote on the evacuation of specific settlements. The National Union called Sharon's new plan a "pathetic attempt to introduce through the back door what Likud Party members threw out of the main entrance."
Should those parties quit, Sharon risks the fall of his government. The opposition Labor Party has hinted it would join the government but only on condition that all the Gaza settlements were abandoned. Lapid's Shinui Party also has expressed reservations about Sharon's revised proposal.
Avraham Diskin, a political science professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, likened Sharon's plan to Israel making a series of payments rather than a single lump sum: "Some people will feel more confident because they have the time to check whether or not they are satisfied with the different stages. It gives them some control over the process."
"I believe that at the end of the road we are going to give up most of these territories," Diskin said. "What happens between now and then may take decades and many domestic crises, including early elections."
There is a renewed push by many Israelis to withdraw from Gaza as quickly as possible. In the past two weeks, Palestinian militants blew up two armored personnel carriers, killing 13 Israeli soldiers, and the Israeli army retaliated in a series of raids that left at least 41 Palestinians dead and dozens of homes bulldozed.
Egyptian authorities are helping Palestinian officials plan for governing Gaza, in case of an Israeli withdrawal. Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman visited with Palestinian leaders and with Sharon this week and proposed that a committee of American, U.N., Israeli and Egyptian officials oversee the transition in Gaza.
Palestinian officials criticized Sharon's new plan as offering nothing new, as a unilateral action that could lead to infighting among armed Palestinian militias and competing security forces.
Ziad Abu Zayyad, a member of the Palestinian parliament from Jerusalem, said that an Israeli withdrawal resembles a redeployment of forces to fenced borders, creating what he described as a virtual prison for Gaza's 1.3 million Palestinians.
"I welcome any real withdrawal from the Gaza Strip," Zayyad said. "But what is being proposed is not meaningful."
Settlers also remain dead-set against Sharon's new plan.
"Sharon is trying to get this thing passed one way or another," said Joshua Hasten, a spokesman for the YESHA Settlement Council. "We're going after members of the Likud Central Committee to see if they can put pressure on the Cabinet ministers. This thing could flip-flop a hundred times between now and Sunday."