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Sharon to Present New Gaza, W. Bank Withdrawal Plan - 2004-05-28


Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is to present his plan for full withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and small parts of the West Bank to his cabinet on Sunday, despite continued opposition from hardliners within his own party and the fact that he may well lack the necessary votes in the cabinet for the plan's approval.

It's been several days of political wrangling and crisis talks as Ariel Sharon tried to persuade skeptics within his own Likud party to support at least a watered-down version of his disengagement plan.

But by late Thursday it became increasingly clear that opponents would not budge and that key ministers could not be convinced.

Among them was Mr. Sharon's main political rival, Finance Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, who refused to support the overall plan and would agree only to the evacuation of three isolated Israeli settlements from Gaza. Other right-wing coalition partners have threatened to quit the government if any settlements are uprooted.

The prime minister could either scrap his plan altogether or he could, in effect, force his cabinet's hand by pushing for a vote.

In a defiant move Friday morning, officials in the prime minister's office said the text of his full disengagement plan was being distributed to the cabinet and that a vote would be scheduled for Sunday.

Mr. Sharon's original disengagement plan called for the dismantling of all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and of four small settlements in the West Bank.

Opinion polls show the majority of Israelis favor the withdrawal, and the plan also received an endorsement from the Bush administration. But rank and file members of Mr. Sharon's Likud party voted against the plan in a referendum early this month. After that, hard-line Likud ministers were reluctant to lend it their support.

Mr. Sharon countered with a revised, watered-down version calling for the withdrawal to be implemented in four phases and for each phase to be brought to the cabinet for prior approval. But even that met with continued opposition.

Israeli media warned that Mr. Sharon could not risk another stinging defeat. One headline in Friday's edition of the Ha'aretz newspaper talked of the end of Mr. Sharon's leadership. But the retired general seems to have opted for a showdown.

There is speculation that by forcing their hand, some key Likud ministers may decide to vote for the plan, fearing a reshuffle of the cabinet at best, or even a collapse of the government and early elections.

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