- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2004

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said yesterday he will seek a Cabinet vote next month on a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, signaling that he is determined to press ahead with his plan despite a deepening corruption probe that could topple him.

Mr. Sharon also warned his hawkish coalition allies that he will form a new government without them if they try to block his plan.

Mr. Sharon’s proposal to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank if there is no movement in peace efforts has shaken up Israeli politics. Polls show that the majority of Israelis support it, but Jewish settlers — a key Sharon constituency — oppose the idea.

Israeli Minister of Tourism Binyamin Elon yesterday opposed the unilateral withdrawal, vowing to stand down if it proceeds.

“I will resign if the government decides to uproot even one settler from Israeli territory,” he said at a conference in Washington. “If there is no other choice, there may be changes to the coalition.”

As debate over the “disengagement plan” heated up yesterday, the Supreme Court ordered Mr. Sharon’s son, Gilad, to hand over potentially incriminating tapes and documents in a pair of corruption investigations.

On Sunday, Israel’s chief prosecutor, Edna Arbel, recommended that the prime minister and his son be indicted in the so-called “Greek Island Affair,” a 1999 bribery case in which Mr. Sharon, then the foreign minister, is accused of influence peddling to help a real-estate developer secure a deal in Greece.

The businessman has been charged with paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to Gilad Sharon.

The attorney general is expected to rule on the recommendation within weeks.

The mounting problems have prompted the opposition to call for Mr. Sharon to step down. Under Israeli legal precedent, an indicted Cabinet minister must step aside. Sharon advisers say that doesn’t apply to prime ministers and that Mr. Sharon has no plans to resign.

The investigations have weakened Mr. Sharon’s standing in his Likud Party and among hard-line supporters, who accuse him of creating the withdrawal plan to cloud the investigations.

“It’s very possible that now Sharon will push the program forward to get the sympathy of the left and leftists in the attorney general’s office,” said Dror Vanunu, a spokesman for Jewish settlers in Gaza.

Benjamin Hu contributed to this report from Washington.

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