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Cabinet Vote Deferred After Battle on Shape of Disengagement Plan

June 1, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Israel’s justice minister has become the country’s most important mediator. Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, the chief of the centrist Shinui Party, has been shuttling desperately between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a bid to keep the two old rivals from tearing the government apart and jeopardizing Israel’s standing with the United States.

At the heart of the dispute is Sharon’s revised disengagement plan, which the Cabinet was meant to approve on Sunday. But a new, four-stage program to remove all settlements in the Gaza Strip and some in the West Bank did little to mollify doubters led by Netanyahu, who said the plan would put national security at risk.

“You do not have a monopoly on concern for the country’s defense,” Netanyahu was quoted as telling Sharon during Sunday’s stormy, seven-hour Cabinet debate, which adjourned without a vote on the plan. The ministers are to reconvene next week.

Lapid wants the Cabinet to commit to the first stage of the plan — the removal of Gaza’s Netzarim, Morag and Rafah Yam settlements by early 2005 — with a more general understanding that the rest of the evacuations will follow on a looser schedule.

But political sources said Sharon was balking at the proposal, having already been forced to revise the U.S.-backed plan after his own Likud Party rejected it in a May 2 referendum. In a bid to keep the Bush administration on his side, the prime minister dispatched his chief aide, Dov Weisglass, to Washington for talks with the White House’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, on Tuesday.

The Bush administration took a political gamble by offering Sharon strong support for the plan, and was flummoxed by the Likud’s subsequent rejection of the deal.

If the Israeli Cabinet fails to approve the disengagement plan, it “would mean, to some degree, compromising the standing of the United States in the international sphere,” Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, told Army Radio. “There is no going back. Even if the government does not adopt the plan, whether today or tomorrow, it will not disappear.”

The question is whether Sharon will stay the course. In a rare admission of poor judgement, he told his Cabinet on Sunday that it had been a “mistake” to put the plan to a party referendum. He then hinted that he might fire recalcitrant ministers, even those from the Likud, deepening the rancor in Israel’s right wing.

“You scorn us. You are arrogant and you threaten people. Do you want to disengage from the Likud?” lawmaker Naomi Blumenthal told Sharon at a party faction meeting Monday, sparking outrage in the dwindling ranks of Sharon supporters.

Sharon was to deliver a Knesset address hours later in response to three no-confidence motions, but he ended up canceling the appearance, citing scheduling problems. The opposition cried foul, withdrawing the motions until June 8.

“Sharon did not want to turn up and face rebellion from his own Likud Party,” said Dalia Itzik, head of the opposition Labor Party’s faction.

But Sharon enjoyed support for his Gaza plan from an unexpected direction: Egypt. The Cairo-run Middle East News Agency said Monday that as many as 200 Egyptian security personnel, as well as European advisers, could be dispatched to the Gaza Strip after an Israeli withdrawal, in part to prevent Islamist groups from taking over.

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