Israeli Cabinet approves Sharon plan

JERUSALEM, June 7 (JTA) — Ariel Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal plan overcame a key hurdle with its passage in the Israeli Cabinet this week, but more obstacles lie ahead. The version of the plan the Cabinet approved by a 14-7 vote 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,” the Israeli prime minister 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 ground campaign in the 1967 Six-Day War, and Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Immediately after the vote, Cabinet minister Ehud Olmert said he would order the Israel Lands Authority to freeze any new requests for settlement construction in the Gaza Strip. He also said Monday that Israel would have to give up some Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem — where Olmert formerly served as mayor — to secure peace and maintain Israel’s demographic balance, according to the Web site of Israel’s Ma’ariv newspaper.

After Sunday’s vote, the White House urged that Israel focus on preparing for withdrawal.

“We view the prime minister’s plan to withdraw all settlements in Gaza and certain settlements in the West Bank as a courageous and historic step,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in a statement Sunday. “We urge that practical preparatory work to implement the plan now proceed as rapidly as possible in Israel.”

But even the compromise plan that was approved Sunday, worked out in recent days after a more comprehensive 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 Cabinet members who strongly opposed the plan, Tourism Minister Benny Elon and Transportation Minister Avigdor Lieberman, both from the National Union Party. Their dismissals helped ensure that the plan had majority support in the Cabinet.

Opposition also had come from members of Sharon’s own Likud Party, 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 principle that Israel should disengage from the Palestinians. No actual vote was taken on whether Israel should evacuate the 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank that Sharon had specified in his original 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 approved plan referred to the letters, but they weren’t appended to the plan itself, as Sharon originally had 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 Sharon’s plan ran into trouble in early May when the Likud membership rejected it in a party referendum.

After this week’s Cabinet vote, Sharon’s coalition ran into new trouble when the pro-Sephardi Shas Party, the liberal Yahad bloc and Israeli Arab parties urged the Knesset on Monday to vote no-confidence in the government over a funding crisis in Israeli municipalities.

But the Labor Party, whose support is necessary for the motions to pass, said it would abstain from such a vote to give Sharon a chance to plan the details of his pullout plan. On Sunday, Labor Party leader Shimon Peres denied there were talks under way for Labor to join the government if the National Religious Party bolts over the disengagement plan.

“We have not been invited to join the government, and we are not about to invite ourselves,” Peres told party members.

Despite the difficulties, Sharon was optimistic after the Cabinet vote, which came as opinion polls showed that a majority of Israelis support the pullout plan.

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

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