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More Political Hurdles Ahead for Israeli Disengagement Plan - 2004-06-07

Supporters of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are claiming victory after Sunday's Cabinet approval of the Israeli leader's controversial plan to remove Israeli settlements from all of the Gaza Strip parts of the West Bank. But opponents say Mr. Sharon still has a long way to go, before he can claim to have reached his goal.

The vote was 14 to seven in Mr. Sharon's favor. But what the Cabinet accepted, only in principle, was a watered-down version of what was originally proposed.

The disengagement plan calls for the dismantling of all 21 Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and four small ones in the West Bank by the end of 2005. But further Cabinet approval is required before implementation can begin.

That compromise was enough to convince key opponents from Mr. Sharon's Likud party to vote for the plan. To make sure it passed, the Israeli leader had also dismissed two hard-line ministers from the National Union Party, who had planned to cast 'no' votes.

Despite the rather tenuous approval of the plan, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called Sunday's vote historic and a turning point.

"It only proves how determined the prime minister is to seek every opportunity to relieve us and the Palestinians from some of the constraints with which we have to deal," he said.

After Sunday's vote, Prime Minister Sharon announced that disengagement has begun. But, analysts say that even under the best of circumstances, any dismantling of settlements would take months to prepare, and they say much can happen in the meantime.

Political commentator, Akiva Eldar of the Ha'aretz newspaper, tells VOA the prime minister has bought time to convince key members of his party that supporting the plan is better than splitting the party and bringing down the coalition government. That would result in Mr. Sharon having to form a new government with the opposition Labor Party or call early elections. Mr. Eldar says, the prime minister also wants to avoid upheavals before the November elections in the United States.

"I believe that his motivation was to get rid of the political angle [of disengagement] in the United States, not to disturb President Bush, and hoping that, after his re-election, or after the election of a new president, there will be, anyway, a new ball game, and he may not even have to implement the decision that was taken Sunday," said Mr. Eldar.

Most settlers say the fight is far from over. Anita Tucker, an Israeli settler from the Gush Katif block in the southern Gaza Strip, told Israel Radio that, while she is concerned about the government's intent, she also plans to continue life as normal.

"As far as I am concerned, tomorrow morning, I am planting new plants in my hothouse for the next season, and my son has a meeting with the contractor to continue building his house, because we're people who look into the future," she said.

Ms. Tucker accused the ministers who voted for disengagement of caring only about their own jobs, and not about the good of the country.

Continued political arguing and maneuvering were well under way just a day after the Cabinet vote, and analysts say that is likely to continue for months to come.

Ministers from one coalition member, the National Religious Party, were debating whether to pull out of the government in protest over Sunday's approval vote. Opponents of the plan were expected to bring parliamentary motions of no-confidence in the Knesset.

But, the Labor Party, which strongly favors dismantling settlements, has let it be known that it would lend its support as a sort of safety net to Mr. Sharon, depriving his opponents of the majority necessary for a vote of no-confidence. And, that will ensure Mr. Sharon's political survival, albeit it fragile, at least for now.