Netanyahu briefs Bush team on plans for his own 2nd term

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

TEL AVIV -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon faces a challenge from Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at a tense moment when he is intent on carrying out the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank.

Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for a national referendum on the Jewish state's planned pullout from the Gaza Strip. AFP/File/Daniel Mihailescu
Israeli political sources said Netanyahu has been preparing the groundwork to challenge Sharon for leadership of the ruling Likud Party. The sources said Netanyahu, prime minister from 1996-1999, has sent an envoy for a series of meetings with senior U.S. officials to discuss his political agenda and Israeli relations with Washington.

"The message was that Netanyahu would serve U.S. interests better than Sharon," a political source said. "Much of the effort is based on the assumption that [President George] Bush would be reelected in November."

[On Monday, the U.S. Defense Department informed Congress that the Bush administration seeks to construct two infantry training bases in Israel. The project, expected to be approved by Congress, has been valued at $350 million, Middle East Newsline reported.]

The sources said Netanyahu plans to challenge Sharon over the next few months regarding the prime minister's intent to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank and evacuate the 10,000 Israeli Jews in these areas.

They said Netanyahu has concluded that the plan could tear apart society as well as the military. The Israel Defense Forces has been authorized to carry out what was expected to be a forced evacuation.

The Netanyahu channel to the Bush administration was being conducted by a former senior aide, Uzi Arad, the sources said. They said Arad, a former senior Mossad official and diplomatic adviser to Netanyahu during his premiership, was said to be highly respected in the administration and was currently in Washington.

The sources said Arad has argued that Sharon's withdrawal plan would harm the U.S. war against Al Qaida and result in regional instability. They said Arad has sought to assure administration officials that Netanyahu could serve U.S. interests in the Middle East as Washington planned to pull out a significant portion of U.S. troops from Iraq by 2006.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu and Sharon clashed over the question of a referendum to determine the debate over unilateral withdrawal from the northern West Bank and Gaza Strip. Netanyahu said a referendum was vital to prevent violence that could erupt over any effort to forcibly evacuate Israeli families, many of whom have been in these areas for more than 30 years.

"I think we should do everything that will reduce the flames," Netanyahu said. "It will stop the harsh attacks [by withdrawal opponents] on the government and soldiers."

Sharon has opposed the referendum proposal. He said a referendum would jeopardize his withdrawal plan, which includes a September 2005 deadline.

On Tuesday, senior Cabinet ministers, forming the so-called inner Cabinet, approved by a 9-1 vote a plan to offer compensation to Israelis in the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank. Officials said an interim fund of up to 5 billion shekels [$1.1 billion] would be required. Under the proposal, Israeli residents of the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank would be eligible for a downpayment on compensation for their homes starting next week.

Netanyahu has also objected to Sharon's timetable for compensating the Israelis slated for evacuation. The finance minister said his aides would need until November 2004 to find the resources required for the compensation fund.

Copyright 2004 East West Services, Inc.

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