Amid Bargaining, Sharon Plans Cabinet Vote on Gaza

Times Staff Writer

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Wednesday that he would bring his proposal for a full withdrawal from the Gaza Strip to the Cabinet for a vote Sunday, as efforts to reach a compromise that would give him a majority continued.

Sharon expressed confidence that the proposal -- calling for the phased evacuation of all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four others in the northern West Bank -- would win. He did not say how.

“The plan will pass, period,” Sharon told reporters after appearing before a parliament committee on defense and foreign affairs.


Efforts early this week to broker a compromise between Sharon and Cabinet ministers opposing the withdrawal failed. One of those foes, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who belongs to Sharon’s Likud Party, favors approving the evacuation of only three Gaza Strip settlements.

Sharon wants the Cabinet to approve the overall pullout, which envisions exiting the settlements in four stages by the end of 2005. He has found himself one vote shy of the majority needed for Cabinet passage.

Under discussion Wednesday was a proposed compromise, initiated by Tzipi Livni, a Likud member and Cabinet minister, that would approve the plan in principle but delay a decision on implementation until after preparations had been made.

At the same time, speculation mounted that the prime minister might sack two ministers from the right-wing National Union, giving him an instant Cabinet majority for the plan.

Gaining the Cabinet’s approval would clear the way for Sharon to put the matter to a vote of the parliament, or Knesset, where he appears assured of a majority.

But analysts warned that lingering political turmoil and division within the Likud could still force Sharon to dissolve the government and call for new national elections within the next few months.


Elections would probably pit Sharon against his most persistent rival, Netanyahu.

They could also bring about a fresh alignment of Israeli political forces by placing the prime minister at the head of a bloc made up of pro-withdrawal moderates from the rightist Likud and two other parties, the left-leaning Labor and centrist Shinui, said political commentator Hanan Kristal.

Sharon’s original withdrawal proposal, which called for evacuating the 25 settlements at once, was defeated during a May 2 referendum among rank-and-file Likud members.

The loss was a setback for Sharon and an embarrassment for the Bush administration, which had endorsed his evacuation plan and still favors the wider pullout.

Sharon says abandoning settlements in the Gaza Strip will reduce tensions with the Palestinians and spare Israel the burden of defending communities it is unlikely to keep under any peace agreement. Palestinian officials have been critical of the proposal, fearing that Israel is attempting to draw unfavorable borders for their hoped-for future state.

Most Israelis favor the pullout, according to polls.

The settlements -- home to 7,500 Israelis who live among 1.3 million Palestinians -- are frequent targets of Palestinian militants.

In recent months, the Gaza Strip has seen increasing bloodshed as Israeli forces and Palestinian fighters trade blows.


In the latest violence early Wednesday, Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip killed two armed Palestinians on the road to Netzarim, a Jewish settlement that often comes under attack. The military said rocket-propelled grenades and other weaponry were found near the bodies.

As Israel debated his withdrawal plan, Sharon received help from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, despite frosty past relations. Mubarak, who has backed the withdrawal, spoke to Sharon about it this week by telephone.

The Egyptian leader will play host to Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom next week, after Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, to discuss the pullout.

Egyptian officials have offered to help the Palestinians improve security in the Gaza Strip in preparation for an Israeli pullout.

Egypt shares a border with the area and is not eager to see Islamic militant groups flourish once Israel leaves.

Egypt plans to send a team of police trainers to Gaza this month, once Palestinian officials have prepared a security overhaul plan for the coastal strip.