Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon says he is confident that his controversial plan to dismantle Israeli settlements, mostly in Gaza, will win the approval of his cabinet when it comes to a vote Sunday. The prime minister also said that by the end of 2005 there will be no Jews in the Gaza Strip.
After weeks of political wrangling, ultimatums, and cajoling, the Israeli leader appeared confident in his comments to reporters after a speech to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Israeli parliament.
The Israeli cabinet has been sharply divided over the disengagement plan. A vote on it was postponed last Sunday when Mr. Sharon reportedly remained one-vote short of getting the cabinet's approval.
Mr. Sharon is reported to be prepared to fire some recalcitrant ministers to ensure the plan's passage.
His original plan called for the withdrawal of all Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip along with four small settlements from the West Bank.
But, many members of his Likud Party opposed the move in a referendum May 2. They say withdrawing from Gaza amid ongoing violence would be counterproductive and would leave the impression that terrorist tactics drove Israel out of Gaza.
Amid such opposition, Mr. Sharon then offered up a watered down version of his plan that includes a phased withdrawal. But, even that was not enough to satisfy some ministers within his coalition.
According to opinion polls, about 70 percent of all Israeli voters favor a withdrawal, as do liberal opposition parties.
Labor Party Leader Shimon Peres says his party would vote for any plan calling for the removal of settlements, but he said Labor would not join Mr. Sharon in a coalition if the current crisis brings down the government.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv said President Bush remains committed to the disengagement plan that Prime Minister Sharon briefed him on last April and not to the scaled down version that is now being debated by the Israeli cabinet.
Israel Radio reports National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice gave that message to an Israeli delegation visiting Washington. Ms. Rice said the administration's position has not changed and that President Bush still supports the original plan in its entirety.