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Israel Set to Implement Gaza Pullout


Israel's plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip this summer is set for implementation, after a key obstacle is removed. Israel's embattled leader got an additional boost from the Bush administration.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has cleared the last major legislative hurdle to the planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Mr. Sharon has won enough support to pass the state budget this week, despite stiff opposition from hawks who oppose the Gaza pullout.

Failure to pass the budget would have toppled the government and put the Gaza withdrawal on hold. Now, it appears that the army will begin dismantling 21 Gaza settlements in July.

Mr. Sharon got another boost, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reiterated American support for Israel's plan to hold on to big West Bank settlement blocs in any final peace agreement with the Palestinians.

"While we will not prejudice the outcome of final status negotiations, the changes on the ground, the existing major Israeli population centers will have to be taken into account in any final status negotiations," she said on Israel Radio.

That position infuriates the Palestinians, who have long insisted that all West Bank settlements be dismantled.

"The choice at the end of the day is between settlements or peace, and I hope the choice will be peace," said Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

But Prime Minister Sharon doubts that Israel and the Palestinians can reach a final peace agreement resolving thorny issues like the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, and final borders. Mr. Sharon has made no secret of his strategy, to get rid of overpopulated, impoverished, and violent Gaza, while tightening Israel's grip on the Biblical heartland of the West Bank.