- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2004

From combined dispatches

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, buoyed by opinion polls, yesterday vowed to forge a new government if pro-settler coalition partners tried to block his plan to evacuate Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.

“It pains me a lot. But I’ve reached a decision and I am going to carry it out,” Mr. Sharon said during a visit to the coastal city of Ashkelon.

Yesterday, Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin said Israel also was considering, within the framework of a future accord with a “Palestinian entity,” handing over some Israeli Arab areas to Palestinian rule in exchange for settlements in the West Bank.

Once considered the godfather of the settlement movement, Mr. Sharon survived a confidence vote in parliament by a single vote Monday after saying he had ordered plans drawn up to remove 17 of the 21 Gaza enclaves.

The prime minister’s remarks, made in an interview to a newspaper columnist, stunned Mr. Sharon’s hard-line allies, and two ultranationalist parties said they would quit the governing coalition if he moved ahead.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said the plan could tear apart the rightist coalition and bring early elections.

Mr. Sharon was quoted yesterday as saying that he would try to form a new government in such an event, presumably by bringing in the opposition Labor Party.

Also yesterday, Shimon Peres, a leading Israeli dove, won a vote extending his term as the Labor leader through 2005, positioning him to prop up Mr. Sharon.

Mr. Peres said he would support Mr. Sharon “as long as he continues on this road,” but stopped short of saying that the Labor Party would join the government.

This was the first time Mr. Sharon has revealed details for such an extensive pullout from land occupied in the 1967 Middle East War that Palestinians want for a state of their own.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, who described Mr. Sharon’s Gaza evacuation plan as “good news,” called any swap on the West Bank “undebatable and unacceptable.”

Ahmed Tibi, a senior Israeli Arab legislator, denounced the idea as a “racist project” aimed at ensuring a Jewish majority in Israel in the face of a higher Arab population growth.

Despite the brewing political crisis, a poll in the Yediot Ahronot daily showed that 59 percent of Israelis supported uprooting Gaza settlements. Thirty-four percent opposed the idea.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that, as far as he knew, the Israeli government had not informed the Bush administration of any plan to dismantle Gaza settlements. He urged Israel and the Palestinians to move forward on the peace plan.

Mr. Sharon, planning a visit to Washington later this month, said he would seek U.S. approval and financial aid to “relocate” the settlers.

About 7,500 settlers occupy 21 percent of the 139-square-mile coastal strip amid more than a million Palestinians.

Mr. Sharon said an evacuation would take one to two years and include removal of three of the more than 120 settlements in the West Bank.

In Gaza yesterday, Mr. Sharon’s announcement drew mixed reactions.

“Like it here? No way. I want to get out,” said one red-faced Israeli soldier sweating in a flak jacket at a security gate near a Jewish settlement.

But many settlers, who have long seen Mr. Sharon as their champion, refused to believe that he would go through with his evacuation plan.

“I think it is a lot of baloney, a lot of noise,” said Anita Tucker, a New York-born celery farmer at Gush Katif.

Others, however, remembered Mr. Sharon’s removal, while defense minister, of the Yamit settlement in the occupied Sinai Peninsula so it could be returned to Egypt.

“I will stay here by standing on my house and fighting in a democratic way,” said Gush Katif Mayor Avner Shimoni, alluding to the Yamit settlers’ short-lived rooftop resistance to the 1982 evacuation.

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