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Sharon Drops Pledge on Phases, Pushes for Swifter Gaza Pullout

August 31, 2004|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Monday that he was abandoning a pledge to uproot Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip only in phases approved by his ministers.

Sharon had agreed to the phased withdrawal in June in a compromise struck weeks after his Likud Party overwhelmingly defeated the pullout plan in a referendum.

At a meeting of his most senior Cabinet ministers, Sharon argued forcefully that a drawn-out withdrawal from the seaside territory would give radical settlers a chance to repeatedly regroup, posing a logistical nightmare for Israeli security forces charged with carrying out an evacuation of the 21 settlements.

"What? You want me to hold a vote every day about each bunch of settlements?" Israeli media reports quoted Sharon as sarcastically asking a stormy session of his so-called inner Cabinet. "How about every hour?"

The prime minister's stance was not seen by officials present at the closed-door session as meaning that a mass evacuation of the Gaza settlements would take place on the same day or even in the same week, but rather that a rolling pullout would proceed uninterruptedly.

Both political foes and friends of the 76-year-old Sharon had wondered what sort of tone he might take with his ministers upon emerging from 10 days of semi-seclusion at his sheep ranch in the Negev desert. Just before that hiatus, his Likud rivals had forced through a party motion meant to block a parliamentary alliance with the opposition Labor Party, which backs the Gaza withdrawal.

"Sharon came back from vacation in combat mode," political analyst Hanan Kristal said. "Ready for battle, and shooting in every direction."

In meetings with his full Cabinet and then the smaller group of senior policymakers, the Israeli leader left little doubt of his determination to quell the rebellion within his party. When Education Minister Limor Livnat protested that Sharon had agreed to a phased pullout, he lashed out at her in language unusually harsh even for a closed-door session.

"Your show of patriotism is phony," Sharon told Livnat, who has sometimes been touted as a potential prime minister. "I'll never again ask you to vote one way or another -- you won't get any requests from me."

Livnat's aides let it be known she was deeply offended by the verbal broadside.

Sharon may have simply decided that overall public support will buoy him in his confrontation with the Likud rebels. Polls have repeatedly indicated that the prime minister has the backing of a substantial majority of Israelis in his bid to get out of Gaza, where about 8,000 Jewish settlers live in heavily fortified enclaves among more than 1.2 million Palestinians.

Much of the worst fighting of the nearly 4-year-old conflict has taken place in Gaza. A grass-roots mothers movement -- similar to one that grew up in the late 1990s, when Israeli troops were bogged down in southern Lebanon -- is seeking to galvanize support for a Gaza pullout, with the activists citing the heavy cost in soldiers' lives.

No one in Sharon's government is under any illusion that evacuating the settlements will be easy. Radical rabbis have given the settlers a religious dispensation to resist with force.

Sharon's ministers of defense and interior -- responsible, respectively, for the army and police -- have been trying to foist onto each other primary responsibility for dealing with the settlers.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz on Monday won Cabinet approval for a plan under which his troops would be responsible for overall security during an evacuation, but police officers would be deployed to deal directly with settlers who resist.

During even relatively small-scale operations such as the evacuation of illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank, Israeli soldiers still in their teens have been spat at, beaten and subjected to insults by settlers. Israel's security establishment has agreed that older and more experienced police officers are better equipped for the task, but it has also left open the idea of special dispensations for officers who have ideological ties to the settlement movement to serve behind the lines.

Sharon planned to present a withdrawal timetable to Likud lawmakers today.

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