Sharon, cabinet deadlocked over withdrawal plan

Special to World
Monday, May 31, 2004

JERUSALEM 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 would spark 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 East.

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.

Copyright 2004 East West Services, Inc.

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