Cabinet Approves Sharon Plan, but Hurdles Remain for Gaza Pullout

Ariel Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal plan overcame a key hurdle with its passage in the Israeli Cabinet this week, but there are more obstacles ahead. The version of the plan the Cabinet approved by a vote of 14-7 Sunday was a withdrawal in principle, but the Cabinet did not vote on actually dismantling any Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip or West Bank.

“Israel is taking its future in its own hands,” Sharon said after the vote. “Israel has no intention of waiting any longer for the Palestinians to rein in terror and incitement.”

Coincidentally, the vote came on the anniversary of two landmark Middle East events in which Sharon played a pivotal role: the beginning of the 1967 Six-Day War’s ground campaign, and Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Immediately after the vote, Israeli Cabinet minister Ehud Olmert said he would order the Israel Lands Authority to freeze any new requests for Jewish settlement construction in the Gaza ! Strip.

But even the compromise plan approved Sunday, which was worked out in recent days after a more comprehensive pullout plan appeared likely to lose a vote, was difficult to achieve.

The measure passed only after days of wrangling and a drawn-out Cabinet meeting.

Last Friday, Sharon fired two members of his Cabinet who had strongly opposed the plan, Tourism Minister Benny Elon and Transportation Minister Avigdor Lieberman, both from the National Union Party. Their dismissals helped to ensure the plan had majority support in the Cabinet.

Cabinet opposition had also come from Sharon’s fellow Likud members, especially Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Education Minister Limor Livnat.

To mollify these “rebel ministers,” Sharon diluted the plan, eventually limiting the vote to the notion that Israel should disengage from the Palestinians in principle. No actual vote was taken on whether Israel should evacuate the 21 set! tlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank that Sharon had specified i n his original disengagement plan.

Sharon also had to include a last-minute compromise regarding a letter of understanding he had exchanged with President Bush on the disengagement plan. The letters were referred to in the plan that was approved, but they were not appended to the plan itself, as Sharon had originally wanted.

Sharon had hoped to clinch support for the plan after Bush endorsed it in April.

At the time, Bush said Israel had the right to retain some West Bank land in a future peace deal with the Palestinians and that Palestinian refugees from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence should not be granted the right to return to their former homes inside Israel.

But inside Israel, Sharon’s plan ran into trouble in early May when it was rejected by Likud’s membership in a party referendum.

Despite the difficulties, Sharon was optimistic after Sunday’s Cabinet vote, which came after opinion polls showed a majority of Israeli support the pullout plan.

“Mo! st people understand that this decision ensures Israel’s future,” Sharon said. “Today’s decision gives hope to everyone.”

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