- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 6, 2004

TEL AVIV — Israel’s Cabinet yesterday approved a watered-down version of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, marking the first time an Israeli government unilaterally relinquished claims on territory captured 37 years ago in a war with its Arab neighbors.

The plan, passed on a 14-7 vote, was amended in an 11th-hour compromise with three ministers from Mr. Sharon’s Likud Party — among them Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who sought to soften the decision in order to discourage a defection of far-right members of the coalition.

The prime minister was forced to stomach a clause that says the decision does not constitute an order to evacuate the 21 Jewish enclaves in Gaza. That decision has been postponed until March.

Nevertheless, Mr. Sharon chalked up a significant comeback one month after suffering a landslide defeat in a Likud Party referendum on the plan. In remarks shortly after the Cabinet vote, the prime minister repeated his plan to withdraw from all of Gaza by the end of 2005.

“The state of Israel made a decisive decision for its future, and sent a clear message to the people in Israel, its neighbors and the entire world,” Mr. Sharon said. “The disengagement has gotten under way.”

The vote came after a week of intensive efforts within Likud to reach a compromise with Mr. Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Education Minister Limor Livnat — all prominent party figures who had been wary of the plan.

Passage was ensured over the weekend when Mr. Sharon dismissed two Cabinet ministers from the National Union Party, which is ideologically opposed to dismantling any Jewish settlements.

The compromise with the Likud troika gave Mr. Sharon a comfortable margin of victory. The Likud negotiators massaged the text of the decision in the hope of averting a rift with the National Religious Party, a pro-settler party with pragmatists who would remain in the government as long as no settlers are evacuated.

But NRP leader Effi Eitam said he could not remain in a government that had decided in principle to leave Gaza.

“No word games can whitewash one of the darkest decisions of the government,” he said. “It means evacuating thousands of Jewish from their homes.”

An exit of the NRP would rob Mr. Sharon’s coalition of a parliamentary majority, setting into motion talks about a broad coalition with the opposition Labor Party. With nearly half of Likud’s parliamentary deputies opposed to the plan, it is not clear whether parliament will approve the plan, which also calls for withdrawal on a smaller scale in the West Bank.

About 7,500 Jewish settlers live in heavily guarded communities amid Gaza’s population of about 1.3 million Palestinians. Yesterday’s decision means that no Israelis will remain in Gaza in any peace settlement with the Palestinians, but Mr. Sharon thinks the withdrawal will boost security by relieving the army of having to defend settlers in Gaza.

The Cabinet decision saves Mr. Sharon from the humiliation of being forced to back away from a plan that got an endorsement in April from the White House. Even though there will be no immediate confrontation with the settlers, the decision sets into motion the legal, financial and military planning for an evacuation.

Palestinian officials responded skeptically to the vote, noting that Mr. Sharon has failed to dismantle the smaller illegal settler outposts in the West Bank as he promised in December.

“I’ll believe it when I’ll see it,” said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. “What counts are not words and decisions, but deeds. History is made by implementation, and not by promises.”

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