Israeli Cabinet rejects delay in Gaza withdrawal

Pullout is scheduled to begin next month

July 04, 2005|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Israel's Cabinet soundly defeated an attempt yesterday to delay the planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip by three months.

The 18-3 decision was the first of two planned votes this week on proposals to postpone the pullout, scheduled to start next month. The parliament, or Knesset, is expected to defeat Wednesday a separate measure seeking a delay.

The proposals stoked fresh tensions between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his main political foe, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who joined two other rightist ministers yesterday in backing the proposed delay.

Netanyahu, under pressure from right-wing backers to resist the withdrawal, has indicated that he would sit out the Knesset vote rather than back the current timetable - a move that Sharon aides said could lead to his dismissal from the Cabinet.

Sharon representatives were quoted anonymously in Israeli newspapers as saying that Netanyahu was legally obliged to support the government's plan or forfeit his post as minister. Netanyahu aides said he is allowed to abstain from voting and that Sharon did so while he was a minister in a Netanyahu-led government during the 1990s.

The odds of a showdown were waning by the time the Cabinet voted, as Sharon aides appeared to back away from threats that Netanyahu would be sacked.

Netanyahu has voted in favor of the withdrawal when it has come up in the Knesset. But he has also been critical and maneuvered at times as if he were intent on derailing the plan, apparently to bolster his right-wing following for a battle with Sharon over leadership of their conservative Likud Party.

Sharon has made no secret of his annoyance but kept Netanyahu in the government and endorsed his budgetary policies.

Israel plans to evacuate all 21 Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and four tiny communities in the northern West Bank beginning about Aug. 15. The move defeated yesterday, sponsored by Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz, would have delayed that until November.

Under the government decision last year clearing the way for the withdrawal, the Cabinet must approve each phase in advance.

Sharon vows that the pullout will take place on schedule, despite opposition that has grown worrisome to authorities. Cabinet ministers were fitted for bulletproof vests before yesterday's meeting, amid fears of extremist Jewish violence aimed at stopping the pullout.

Last week, Israel's army and police evicted 150 right-wing activists from a formerly abandoned hotel in the main bloc of Gaza settlements, known as Gush Katif, after several violent encounters, including the beating of a Palestinian teen by Jewish militants.

Those clashes, along with a campaign by protesters to snarl traffic by blocking Israeli highways and pouring oil and nails along one road, dismayed many Israelis. Opinion polls afterward showed an uptick in support for the withdrawal, which generally has enjoyed majority backing.

Government plans for relocating Gaza settlers got a boost yesterday when a community dropped its court battle against construction of temporary housing nearby. The government promised leaders of Nitzan, about 12 miles north of the Gaza Strip, that it would retain its religiously observant character and that temporary dwellings would be removed after four years.

"I hope that by reaching this agreement we have contributed our part to a calm between the government and the Gush Katif settlers," said Nitzan representative Meir Zafrani.

The relocation plan, which involves construction near an undeveloped stretch of dunes, still faces a court challenge by environmental groups.

Also yesterday, the group Peace Now filed a lawsuit urging the Israeli government to demolish an illegal settlement outpost in the West Bank.

The Israeli group said the outpost, Amona, is included in a government order to raze more than 50 illegally built clusters. Nine families are soon to move into new homes in Amona, near the West Bank town of Ramallah, Peace Now said.

Under the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the "road map," Israel is to tear down outposts built since March 2001, but it has not done so.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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