- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 7, 2003

TEL AVIV — Sharp disagreements within the ruling Likud Party were exposed yesterday after a key ally of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon spoke out in favor of unilateral withdrawal from large parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

In an interview published in the weekend edition of Israel’s largest newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned that without territorial concessions, Israel would jeopardize its future as a Jewish state.

He went as far as to suggest giving Palestinians control of Arab neighborhoods on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

Mr. Olmert came in for harsh criticism at a Cabinet meeting yesterday from ideological hard-liners in Likud, for whom the notion of giving away any part of the biblical Land of Israel is a sacrilege.

“I see great danger with a unilateral withdrawal,” said Gideon Ezra, a minister without portfolio from the Likud Party. “Even if we give the Palestinians all of [the West Bank] but not all of Jerusalem, it will be like we’ve given them nothing. Therefore, we have to hold our ground and fight terror.”

Mr. Sharon promised the ministers that the Cabinet would get a chance to consider any proposal for a unilateral withdrawal, although he refrained from commenting personally.

Last week, the prime minister hinted that he was prepared to take unilateral action if negotiations with the Palestinians remained deadlocked, but declined to say what those actions would be. The comments raised speculation about whether Mr. Olmert, a political confidant of Mr. Sharon’s, had received a green light from the prime minister to float a trial balloon.

“Most of the Likud is with me,” Mr. Olmert said yesterday, explaining that he simply had voiced “what a majority of Likud members think in their hearts.”

The idea of unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip previously was a solution identified only with leaders of the opposition Labor Party. In the first months of the Palestinian uprising, Prime Minister Ehud Barak floated the idea and was defeated resoundingly by Mr. Sharon.

But Mr. Ezra said the prospect that the party’s central committee would approve Mr. Olmert’s proposal was remote. Infrastructure Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who resigned as a top Likud activist to lead his own political party, pledged to return to his old party to lead the fight against Mr. Olmert.

“To make concessions, we don’t need Olmert, because Yossi Beilin is much better,” Mr. Lieberman reportedly said, referring to the left-wing leader who last year signed a model peace agreement with Palestinian politicians in Geneva.

Meanwhile, the council of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza demanded that Mr. Sharon dismiss Mr. Olmert from the Cabinet.

In the weekend interview, Mr. Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem, referred to demographic projections indicating that more Arabs than Jews will be living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea within a matter of years.

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