Israelis to consider revised withdrawal plan

Sharon threatens to fire opponents

efforts begun to forge deal in Cabinet

May 31, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM — Ariel Sharon JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon presented to a divided Cabinet yesterday his plan to evacuate Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, but he postponed a vote that could have toppled his government.

Sharon intensified the showdown with opposing ministers by threatening to fire them. "I am determined to pass this plan, even if I am forced to change the makeup of the government or to take unprecedented political steps," he said, according to Sharon aide Assi Shariv.

Efforts were under way to forge a compromise among the 12 ministers who oppose Sharon's plan and the 11 who support it. Officials say a vote will be held no later than Sunday. But tumultuous events have weakened Sharon, who has been unable to muster support from Likud voters, who rejected the plan in a referendum this month.

State radio reported yesterday that Sharon's top aides had opened discussions with the opposition Labor Party, whose leaders have indicated that they would agree to form a unity government with Sharon, thus saving him from new elections, if he is serious about evacuating Gaza. Labor Party leaders have said, however, that they would only come aboard after the plan is approved.

In interviews with two daily newspapers over the weekend, Sharon accused Cabinet ministers of putting personal agendas ahead of the country's interests -- remarks widely interpreted to be directed at his Likud Party rival, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Justice Minister Josef Lapid, head of the Shinui Party, said yesterday that he was trying to broker a deal between Sharon and Netanyahu to save the plan.

Opening yesterday's Cabinet meeting, Sharon said approval of his plan was vital to Israel's future and to maintaining strong ties with the United States, which backed the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip despite objections from the Arab world that the Palestinians would be left out of negotiations.

"The plan will enable us to preserve national and security interests and extract Israel from the dangerous diplomatic deadlock," Sharon told his Cabinet before the debate began. "I know it's not an easy or simple step, but we must all show leadership and responsibility and bring hope to Israel."

The Cabinet met hours after an Israeli helicopter fired missiles in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City, killing a prominent militant Hamas leader, his aide and a bystander. Wael Nasser, the commander of the Izzadin Brigades, the group's military wing, and his deputy, Mohammed Sarsour, were riding on a motorcycle when they were fired on.

It was the latest in a string of assassinations by Israel that have killed most of the top commanders of Hamas, responsible for most of the suicide bombings against Israel. Authorities said Nasser was linked to the rocket attacks at Israeli communities last week, which left 13 soldiers dead in southern Gaza, and a suicide bombing last year at Mike's Place pub in Tel Aviv, which killed three people and injured 60.

Sharon's bold initiative to evacuate 21 settlements in Gaza -- where 7,500 Israelis live amid 1.3 million Palestinians -- and four isolated West Bank settlements is part of his unilateral disengagement plan that would secure borders on Israel's terms.

The plan being considered by Cabinet ministers is a scaled-back version of the plan that Likud voters rejected May 2. The modified version Sharon is seeking approval for now would require the ministers to agree in principle to remove all settlements in Gaza. The withdrawal would be carried out in four stages, with each move requiring a Cabinet vote.

That was designed to give the Cabinet some control over the pace and breadth of the pullout. Sharon rejected another idea that would have had ministers vote yesterday on withdrawing from three Gaza settlements without having to approve the entire plan, saying the United States would not support a limited withdrawal.

The issue has emerged as one of Sharon's greatest tests in government. He enjoys broad support for his plan among the Israeli public, but his government is stitched together with the help of two small right-wing religious parties that are threatening to quit, possibly forcing new elections, if the plan is approved.

Within the framework of the larger debate is a long-simmering dispute between party rivals Sharon and Netanyahu. The two men have been in a power struggle for years, and Netanyahu could be in a position to claim the party's top spot from Sharon should the disengagement plan be defeated.

In an interview with the Maariv newspaper published yesterday, Sharon warned, "I am not finished, I am not liquidated. It is too early to eulogize me." He accused some ministers of resorting to "blackmail" in exchange for support, and complained of "colleagues who are trying to exploit the crisis by advancing their own personal agendas."

During yesterday's meeting, Sharon told ministers that he made a mistake holding the referendum. "In the conflict between the duty toward the entire public and the duty to Likud registered members, we have no choice," Sharon said, according to Shariv. "We must prefer the good of the general public. We must approve the plan."

Netanyahu accused Sharon of bypassing democracy by ignoring the results of the Likud Party vote. "The prime minister initiated the referendum and undertook to accept its results," Netanyahu said in a statement. "He did not say he would accept the results only if he wins, and will throw them into the trash can if he loses."

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