Cabinet debate scheduled on Sharon's Gaza proposal

Prime minister wants to withdraw settlements

delay seen likely on vote

May 29, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon plans a Cabinet debate tomorrow on the withdrawal of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and will likely delay a vote on the issue because it is uncertain whether it will pass, officials and news media reported yesterday.

"There will be a debate," Asav Shariv, the prime minister's spokesman, said last night. "We are still unsure if there will be a vote."

With most or all of the ministers expected to speak, tomorrow's debate could last the entire day, a senior government official said. The Cabinet could vote tomorrow or delay the voting until June 6, the official said.

But Israeli television stations reported that a vote was not expected tomorrow because Sharon still lacks a clear majority.

Shariv said the head count among the 23 Cabinet ministers remains unchanged from Thursday: 11 in support of Sharon, eight against and another four - all of them members of Sharon's Likud Party - inclined to join the opponents.

"We are not convinced he will lose Sunday," the aide said. "All he needs is one minister."

Second attempt

A Cabinet vote would be Sharon's second attempt to win approval for removing the 7,500 Jewish settlers from Gaza, home to 1.3 million Palestinians. He is also seeking to disband four settlements in the West Bank. In a referendum last month, members of the Likud Party voted against the withdrawal plan.

Earlier yesterday, Sharon's office announced that it would again seek a full, unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, backing away from an plan for a measured pullout of settlements. The plan, distributed yesterday to Cabinet ministers, called for houses and synagogues in the Gaza settlements to be destroyed after an evacuation, and for commercial buildings to be turned over to an international organization.

Shariv said that the plan was what the prime minister had wanted "all the time" and that he revived it after "he went to the ministers who were wavering and they told him no."

Earlier this week, Sharon had proposed leaving Gaza in stages, beginning with three of the 21 Gaza settlements.

The Israeli press was filled with speculation yesterday about Sharon's future, with newspapers and television news programs pointing out that the prime minister has been unable to turn broad popular support for evacuating settlements into government policy.

The newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth ran a banner headline in red ink saying: "Sharon: `I have no majority.'"

"The irony is that Sharon, who wanted so badly to place himself in the center, discovered that the center may have a majority of the public, but no political power," wrote Nahum Barnea, an influential political commentator. "The dilemma he faces is a cruel one: to continue holding the title of prime minister for some time to come, while between one ceremony and the next he is emasculated and humiliated and others determine his agenda, or to take the risk of losing the reins of power completely."

Supporting Sharon

Sharon's biggest supporter, Industry and Trade Minister Ehud Olmert, told Israel Radio yesterday that "there is no question that this is a time we have to make a decision."

Olmert asserted that a withdrawal from Gaza is inevitable, regardless of how the Cabinet votes.

"Israel will not stay in the Gaza Strip," he said. "The question is whether we go on a timetable that we dictate, and on the scope that we dictate, or whether we find ourselves under pressure of a broad international front to leave."

The New York Times News Service contributed to this article.

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