JERUSALEM ø Israel's government has been paralyzed by a strategic
dispute between its prime minister and a majority of Cabinet ministers.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to evacuate Israeli communities in
the Gaza Strip and much of the West Bank has been blocked by a majority of
the 23-minister Cabinet. Sharon, despite a stinging defeat by his own Likud
Party earlier this month, has refused to withdraw his plan, endorsed by U.S.
President George Bush.
"It's [failure to approve the plan] a stinging slap in the face to the
U.S. president," Meir Shetreet, a minister at the Finance Ministry, said.
Sharon, faced with the opposition of many of his own Likud ministers,
has threatened to fire Cabinet members and bring in the opposition Labor
Party. But on Sunday the prime minister shelved his pledge to hold a Cabinet
vote on the withdrawal plan. The following day, Sharon, fearing a revolt by
some coalition partners, canceled an appearance in the Knesset to outline
his withdrawal plan.
"I am determined to pass this plan, even if I am forced to change the
composition of the government or to take unprecedented political steps,"
Sharon told the Cabinet during the seven-hour meeting.
Sharon and his allies have painted a dire scenario of any Cabinet
rejection of the withdrawal plan. They asserted that rejection of the plan
a crisis with the United States as well as with Egypt and Jordan. The prime
minister warned that this could harm Israel's security posture in the Middle
Israeli military chiefs appeared to differ over Sharon's plan. Israeli
Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon told the Cabinet that a staged plan would only
intensify the war with the Palestinians and increase their missile attacks.
But military intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi-Farkash asserted that
the benefits of the plan exceeded its risks.
Cabinet sources said Israel Security Agency director Avi Dichter
dismissed the prospect that an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip would
result in a takeover by the Islamic opposition group Hamas. But the sources
quoted Dichter as saying that an Israeli withdrawal would be followed by
increased Palestinian rocket attacks on the Jewish state.
"I asked the prime minister how this plan would improve Israel's
security and help fight in the war against terrorism," Housing Minister Effi
Eitam, who opposes the plan, said. "The room turned quiet and then the prime
minister said the plan is not a security program, but a political one. The
military was being asked to provide a security envelope."
During the Cabinet session, Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu urged
Sharon to end his efforts to promote the withdrawal plan. Netanyahu said
that based on a weekend discussion with U.S. ambassador Dan Kurtzer, the
Israeli minister believed there would not be any significant U.S. backlash
in wake of the abandonment of Sharon's proposal.
The finance minister urged Sharon to consider a plan for the withdrawal
from three Israeli communities in the Gaza Strip rather than all 25
settlements in the region. Netanyahu said such a limited withdrawal would
maintain the pledge Bush issued in April in support of some of Israel's
positions on final status issues that concern a Palestinian state.
Earlier, an American Jewish leader, Morton Zuckerman, was said to have
delivered an angry letter from the White House to Sharon regarding his
failure to launch the withdrawal plan. Zuckerman was also said to have
warned Sharon of a crisis in Israeli-U.S. relations.
On late Sunday, Sharon's chief aide, Dov Weisglass, flew to Washington
to meet U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Officials said
Weisglass plans to reassure Ms. Rice that Sharon will win Cabinet approval
of his withdrawal plan.