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Netanyahu Leaves Government; Creates Havoc Just Before Withdrawal

Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has thrown Israeli politics into disarray with an 11th-hour resignation in protest at the upcoming Gaza Strip withdrawal. After long denying pundits’ speculation that his days alongside Prime Minister Ariel Sharon were numbered, Netanyahu tendered his resignation Sunday, just as the Cabinet approved the first phase of settlement evacuations, which are slated to begin next week.

“I am all torn up inside,” Netanyahu told reporters. “Like anyone, I aspire to leave Gaza. I aspire to peace,” he said. “But the disengagement plan endangers Israel and is polarizing its people.”

Sharon had no immediate comment on the surprise move by his top Likud Party rival, which was hailed as a heroic act of conscience by many Israelis who see the unilateral withdrawals from Gaza and the northern West Bank as a recipe for renewed Palestinian terrorism.

But on the left, Netanyahu was accused of cynically staking out a claim on a second term as prime minister at the cost of government stability. Labor Party ministers were quick to recall how he handed over most of the West Bank city of Hebron to the Palestinian Authority while he was prime minister in 1997, despite having earlier lambasted the land-for-peace principle before he headed the government.

“Netanyahu is, once again, coming out as a schemer at a historic juncture, preferring his own interests over those of the nation’s,” Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said.

Barring copycat resignations by other Likud ministers who have voiced misgivings about the Gaza plan, Sharon’s most important policy is expected to stay on track.

Sharon wasted no time in naming Trade Minister Ehud Olmert to be Netanyahu’s interim replacement.

But all agreed that, in today’s global economy, Netanyahu’s shoes as finance minister would be hard to fill. During two-and-a-half years at the Treasury, he made a major impact with belt-tightening reforms that many economists credited with pulling the Jewish state out of recession.

The Israeli markets panicked at Netanyahu’s resignation, which came an hour before trading ended. The MAOF Index plummeted 5.25 percent, and there were similar drops across the board.

Netanyahu appealed for calm, extolling the skills of his Finance Ministry aides and recommending that his successor keep them on.

“He will receive an economy that has gone from collapse to growth,” Netanyahu said. “As long as the same course is maintained at the helm, this trend should continue.”

According to media reports, Netanyahu’s decision to quit the government was so quick as to have caught his closest advisers off-guard. Some political analysts suggested that, with the removal of 25 Jewish settlements to formally begin on Aug. 15, Netanyahu seeks to inherit as the next prime minister an Israel devoid of the security burden of Gaza, while remaining unassociated with its evacuation.

The walkout could help restore Netanyahu’s credibility among hard-line supporters.

Just last week, one of his long-standing foreign funders, the Australian diamond billionaire Joseph Gutnick, said in an Israeli-television interview that Netanyahu had disappointed many of those who voted for him as prime minister in 1996.

In his remarks to reporters, Netanyahu did not detail his political aspirations, saying only that he did not want to be remembered as having taken part in a withdrawal that could turn Gaza into a “base for Islamic terror.”

“You know, I’m the son of a historian,” he said. “In 10, 50, 100 years, I want them to be able to say, He did not take part in it.”

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