- The Washington Times - Monday, August 8, 2005

TEL AVIV — Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resigned in protest yesterday, minutes before the Israeli Cabinet confirmed plans to begin evacuating Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip next week.

“The moment of truth has arrived,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “I know that I can’t be a partner to a move that I believe is mistaken and that is leading blindly toward the establishment of an Islamic base that endangers the state of Israel.”

No other Cabinet minister joined the former prime minister in his surprise exit, which will not impair Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s ability to carry out the disengagement, starting next Monday.

But the move deepens a rupture within the Likud Party over the withdrawal and sets up a battle between Mr. Netanyahu and the prime minister for leadership of the party.

Mr. Sharon immediately named a close political ally, Trade Minister Ehud Olmert, as acting finance minister.

Mr. Netanyahu, who recently denied that he intended to step down despite his long-standing criticism of the pullout plan, said the Gaza move eventually would force Israel to withdraw from all of the territory in the West Bank captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War — including Arab East Jerusalem.

He reportedly submitted a resignation letter several pages long just before the Cabinet began its discussion of the withdrawal. He then walked out of the meeting room.

Mr. Netanyahu chose a largely symbolic occasion to part ways with Mr. Sharon. The Cabinet vote to evacuate the first three of 25 settlements — Gaza’s island enclaves of Netzarim, Kfar Darom and Morag — was considered a mere formality.

Preparations are already in full swing for the pullout, with security forces putting the final touches on evacuation training and settlers beginning to pack their bags.

Mr. Netanyahu — known by his nickname, Bibi — flirted with several previous opportunities to leave the Cabinet and become the standard-bearer of right-wing opposition to the withdrawal. But he argued that he could do more good for the country by remaining as finance minister to promote his program of economic liberalization.

The resignation offered what might be the final political gasp for settlers and their allies before Mr. Sharon’s disengagement plan goes into effect.

“The courageous step by Finance Minister Bibi came at the last minute,” said Avner Shimoni, head of the regional council of Gaza settlers.

“I read his four-page resignation letter. The clear conclusion is that Sharon is evicting under fire. Therefore, today is the time. No disaster will occur if we stop this.”

Conservative lawmakers called for the parliament to be recalled from its summer recess to reconsider the disengagement, but they don’t have enough support to convene an emergency session.

Parliament members from the Labor Party, Mr. Sharon’s coalition partner, said it would have been disingenuous for Mr. Netanyahu to remain in such a senior position within a government enacting a policy he so much opposed.

“Good riddance,” said Labor lawmaker Eitan Cabel. “I’m not excited by the resignation. This move was planned for a long time.”

Mr. Netanyahu said the withdrawal would be considered by Palestinians a victory for Islamic militant groups such as Hamas, which have advocated terrorist bombings inside Israel to end its four-decade military occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

As finance minister, Mr. Netanyahu has pushed privatization, fiscal belt-tightening and controversial tax reforms. He also pushed the appointment of former Citibank Deputy Chairman Stanley Fischer as central bank governor.

Although local stock investors disagree with Mr. Netanyahu’s position on the disengagement, they’ve been staunch supporters of his economic policies.

Tel Aviv’s benchmark stock exchange responded to the surprise announcement by tumbling more than 5 percent on concern that Mr. Netanyahu’s successor would retreat from the reform program.

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