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Israeli Government in Turmoil Over Sharon Gaza Pullout Plan

TEL AVIV — Israel’s political establishment began preparing itself this week for a major political shake-up in the wake of Prime Minister Sharon’s detailing of his “disengagement plan” for Gaza and the West Bank.

The plan, first disclosed Monday in an interview in the daily Ha’aretz, was far more detailed than any withdrawal plan Sharon has offered in the past. Indeed, politicians across the political spectrum were taking him seriously rather than dismissing his words as posturing or playing for time, as most have done up to now.

As a turbulent political week drew to a close, Sharon’s right-wing coalition partners were threatening to bolt the government, while the Labor party seemed all but ready to come in and replace them. Complicating Sharon’s situation, opposition was growing among his close allies, including his foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, and his longtime friend Reuven Rivlin, speaker of the Knesset. The Israeli public, for its part, seemed firmly behind him. A poll in the daily Yediot Aharonot showed support for a Gaza withdrawal at 59%, with 34% opposed.

As the first concrete step toward removing settlements from Israel’s biblical heartland in 37 years of occupation, the plan appeared historic. Even the Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, called it “good news,” voicing hope that it would prove to be a first step toward more sweeping withdrawal.

Still, Sharon had made declarations in the past that came to nothing, and no one was ready to bet the store now on Sharon’s real intentions.

It started with a carefully planned talk between Sharon and Yoel Marcus, a senior columnist for Ha’aretz who is known as a fierce critic of the prime minister.

“The present situation cannot go on,” Sharon said. “I have given instructions for the disengagement plan to include the relocation of 17 settlements in the Gaza Strip and three problematic settlements in Samaria,” the Hebrew name for the northern West Bank.

The disengagement will not take place “today or tomorrow,” Sharon said. But he indicated a time limit of “a year or two” for completion of the plan. Settlers would be offered relocation to new communities or compensation.

“I am working on the assumption that in the future there will be no Jews in Gaza,” Sharon said.

The statement varied from his previous ones both in the detail and the indication, however vague, of a time frame. Aides said he envisions uprooting virtually all Israeli civilian settlements in Gaza. In the West Bank, the plan targets Ganim and Kadim, near Jenin, as well as two more isolated points, Homesh and Sa-Nur. In all, about 7,500 settlers will be relocated. Brigadier General Giora Eiland, director of Sharon’s national security council, was to submit a detailed plan next week. Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was quoted as saying initial moves could begin as soon as June or July.

Sharon seemed to grow less decisive in public comments in the days following the interview. Some observers suggested he had not intended for the plan to become public before he unveiled it to a Likud party gathering Monday afternoon, not realizing that in the Internet age a Monday interview could become public the same day. As a result, he faced an organized firestorm of criticism before he was ready to respond.

Not everyone was taking him at face value. Some politicians saw his new decisiveness as linked to his mounting legal problems.

Israel’s newly appointed attorney general, Menachem Mazouz, said in midweek that he had begun to study the files in the so-called Greek Island affair, in order to make a final decision on whether to press bribery charges against the prime minister. Sharon was expected to undergo another police interrogation in the coming days in the case. A prominent Tel Aviv businessman, David Appel, has already been indicted on charges of seeking to bribe Sharon to use his influence in a real estate deal.

Other skeptics linked Sharon’s comments to his forthcoming visit to the White House, for which no date has been set. Up to now the Bush administration has been cool to Israeli talk of unilateral “disengagement.” Sources close to the prime minister said he will seek American support for his plans, in the form of a U.S.-Israel agreement, after presenting the president with dates and names of settlements to be evacuated. Two officials of Bush’s National Security Council, Elliott Abrams and Steven Hadley, were expected in Israel this week, and Sharon was expected to detail his plans to them.

Leaders of the settler movement, enraged by the plan, are now vowing to bring down the man they once called “the father of the settlements.” The pro-settler parties, the National Union and National Religious Party, which had previously vowed to judge Sharon “on his actions, not his words” — fearing that a premature split would simply bring a left-wing government — are under serious pressure from constituents to bolt. Together, the two parties have 12 members in the Knesset, enough to deny Sharon a 61-seat majority in the 120-seat house.

As they feared, their replacement seems ready to step in. The day after Sharon’s statement, the Labor Party voted to add another year to the term of party leader Shimon Peres, who is known to favor joining a Sharon government. Peres, now secure until December 2005, promptly promised Sharon a Knesset “safety net” for withdrawal from Gaza. Peres stopped short of guaranteeing his party would join the coalition to replace the right. But prominent Laborites like Haim Ramon say Labor “will have no alternative” but to step in if the right leaves.

The real danger for Sharon, beyond the attorney general’s office, lurks within his own Likud. At first only a handful of backbenchers spoke of deposing him. They were soon joined by Shalom, who threatened that carrying out the plan “will bring the downfall of the government.” Rivlin followed shortly after.

Sharon’s most important rival in the Likud has kept conspicuously silent: Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, widely considered the prime minister’s likely successor. Should Netanyahu lead an internal revolt, events could turn unpredictable. Inevitably, talk of new elections as a sort of referendum on the plan was intensifying around the Knesset toward the week’s end.

The Palestinians were no less divided than the Likud. Qurei, the prime minister, said that if Sharon is serious, “this is too good to be true.” But most Palestinians seemed to agree more with Yasser Arafat, who said Israel “will only remove 17 settlements and then replace them with 170 motor homes.” Arafat’s minister for negotiations, Saeb Erekat, summed it up by saying, “We will believe Sharon only when things start moving on the ground.”


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