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Sharon's Decision to Relocate Settlers Creates Political Firestorm - 2004-02-04

Political analysts are expressing surprise and skepticism at Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's announcement that he is preparing to remove all the Israeli settlements from Gaza.

The one-time champion of the Jewish settler movement turned his back on his most loyal supporters this week, when he announced Jewish settlers would have no place in the Gaza Strip and will also be removed from parts of the West Bank. In announcing the plan, Mr. Sharon declared that it was a difficult decision to make and that, except for the settlers themselves, no one could feel more pain than himself.

Mr. Sharon said he was acting in the interest of Israel's development, security and economy for the years to come. He said, 'it pains me greatly, but this is my responsibility and therefore…I intend to carry it out.'

The announcement ignited a political firestorm.

None were more outraged than the settlers themselves.

"It is unbelievable," said Shaul Goldstein, a settler leader and mayor of the Gush Etzion block of settlements in the West Bank. "We ran out of Lebanon, the Hezbollah was chanting. We are running out of Gaza, God forbid, Hamas is chanting. The world recognizes that Hezbollah and Hamas are terror organizations. They are getting the best prizes for their terror. We have to stop it."

Despite the outrage expressed by settler groups, Mr. Sharon says he wants their backing. The settlers say they will work to remove him as prime minister, if he tries to carry out the plan.

Even members of Mr. Sharon's party expressed outrage, in part because he was elected prime minister on a promise to negotiate such issues only as part of a peace agreement. Likud member of parliament Ehud Yatom accused the prime minister of selling out the party, and adopting the position of the former leader of the opposition Labor Party, Amram Mitzna, whom Mr. Sharon defeated in the last election.

"The Likud was elected to bring an agreement with the Palestinians, and now we are going with Mitzna's plan," he said.

The parties of the religious right that make up a small, but significant, part of Prime Minister Sharon's ruling coalition threatened to pull out of the government, if he does not seek Cabinet approval of the plan. The prime minister countered that he would form a new government without them, if need be.

But although offers of support for the Sharon plan were not long in coming, forming a new government without the religious right would not be easy. Members of the left-wing Meretz Party backed the plan, as did the opposition Labor Party. But Labor stopped short of saying it would be part of a new Sharon government, and Meretz is politically far away from Mr. Sharon on most issues.

The former defense minister and current Labor member of parliament, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, said the prime minister will find support for removing the Gaza settlements from the opposition benches.

"The only thing he could expect from us for the time being, [is] that we will support him from outside," he said. "As long as he is running with a breakthrough, I am talking about Gaza, 19 hands of the Labor Party will give him [an] umbrella."

The plan Mr. Sharon outlined to his Likud Party this week is the first step in a phased withdrawal that would result in the relocation of an estimated 7,500 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Sharon did not say when he might do that. But Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hinted at what the government is thinking in that regard.

"My personal assessment is that, sometime toward June, [or] July, this will become an unavoidable reality," he said. "By then, Israel has to be ready with a new strategy. Now, to say that by the end of the year there will be no Jews in the Gaza district is a little bit far to go at this point."

Mr. Sharon has been a strong supporter of settlement activity in the occupied territories. But he has spoken previously of taking unilateral steps, if there is no negotiated peace deal.

Palestinians reacted with skepticism. Yasser Arafat's spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, called the unilateral withdrawal idea a distraction from what should be the only way forward, the internationally backed peace plan, known as the Roadmap.

"What we have on the table is the 'road map'," said Mr. Rudeineh. "If they are serious and willing and ready, as we are, they should stop all their settlement activities."

There are indications that the Israeli public may be ready to embrace the plan.

A poll published in the mass circulation Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth this week showed that 59 percent of Israelis back the unilateral evacuation plan for Gaza settlements. Less than two months ago, a similar survey showed only 50 percent favored such a move.

Mr. Sharon says he might put the issue to a referendum.