JERUSALEM -- Days before Israel is set to begin moving thousands of settlers from the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's chief political rival, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, resigned yesterday to protest the withdrawal plan, saying the government was acting with "complete blindness."
His resignation is unlikely to disrupt the withdrawal that is scheduled to begin Aug. 15. But it underscores the dissension Sharon's plan has created among hawkish members of the Cabinet, including many in Sharon's Likud Party.
Netanyahu, 55, a former prime minister, made his announcement at yesterday's Cabinet meeting moments before the Cabinet voted 16-5 in favor of the first phase of the withdrawal of 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the northern West Bank.
Netanyahu said he was resigning out of concern for Israel's safety, worried that Gaza would become an "Islamic terrorist state" endangering the world.
"I can be at peace with myself. I can say that I cannot be a party to this," he said at a news conference later.
But most Israelis interpreted his decision as a clear signal of his intent to challenge Sharon for the leadership of the Likud Party. Quitting now, just before the final approval of the withdrawal, enables Netanyahu to enter the election saying he did not support Sharon's plan.
"This is the last stop where he could jump off the train," said Shmuel Sandler, a researcher at Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.
Netanyahu arrived late for the Cabinet meeting and appeared nervous, said Chaim Ramon, a Labor Party minister. Netanyahu opened and closed a letter in his hand several times before asking to speak and announcing he was quitting. "Everyone was shocked," Ramon said.
"We have reached the moment of truth today," Netanyahu said in the letter, which he placed in front of Sharon before walking out of the meeting. "There is a way to achieve peace and security, but a unilateral withdrawal under fire and with nothing in return is certainly not the way."
Sharon said nothing when Netanyahu made his announcement, reacting with only a smile, Ramon said.
Israel's stock market dropped 5 percent in an hour in reaction to the news. Netanyahu was well-regarded as finance minister, embracing a pro-business economic policy and cutting welfare benefits. Seeking to curb more damage, Sharon quickly announced that he would not change Netanyahu's economic policies.
Netanyahu became the second high-profile Cabinet member to quit in protest of Sharon's withdrawal plan -- known locally as "disengagement." Natan Sharansky, minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs, quit the government in May. Sharon has fired three Cabinet members who did not support his plan and has battled resistance within his party for months, risking the collapse of his government.
But Sharon has been buoyed by opinion polls that show more than half the public supporting his plan.
"Evacuating the residents will be hard for all of us but especially for the residents," Sharon told Cabinet members. "For the residents themselves, this is a very painful process, and I understand their hearts and their pain.
"However, and despite all the hardship, the disengagement plan will allow us to preserve our vital national and security interests. It creates an opportunity to get the regional diplomatic process moving, and it is very important for the future of the state of Israel."
The Israeli news media had long speculated that Netanyahu was planning to quit, but he regularly denied the rumors. Jewish settler leaders pressured Netanyahu to join their fight to derail the evacuation, and settlers expressed support for his decision last night, even if Eran Sternberg, spokesman for the Gaza settlers, said it came "far too late."
Netanyahu's resignation and his political ambitions raise the possibility of early parliamentary elections. Now scheduled for November 2006, elections could take place as early as the spring if Netanyahu gains control of Likud.
Though Sharon, 77, led the party to victory in the past two elections, he will have to scramble back to the right to win back supporters lost among settlers and other conservatives because of his disengagement plan. Netanyahu, meanwhile, is positioning himself as the natural choice for those voters who feel betrayed by Sharon. But it is not clear whether Likud will survive as a single party.
Netanyahu served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, defeating Labor candidate Shimon Peres in an election held amid Palestinian suicide attacks. A hard-liner who did not trust efforts by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to renounce militant activity and pursue peace, Netanyahu viewed security as his priority.
In 1998, he signed the Wye River peace accord with the Palestinians, in which Israel agreed to hand over some territory in exchange for Palestinian efforts to stop militant activity and eliminate weapons arsenals. When the agreement collapsed, Netanyahu lost support. He was defeated by Ehud Barak in 1999.