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Panel Meets on Gaza Pullout Proposal

Committee formed to lead preparations for an Israeli withdrawal holds first session, as Sharon works to shore up his unraveling coalition.

June 10, 2004|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — The governmental committee assigned to plan an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip held its first session Wednesday amid continued political turmoil over the Cabinet's tentative decision to exit the area by the end of next year.

The withdrawal committee -- made up of representatives of various government agencies and headed by retired Gen. Giora Eiland, chairman of the National Security Council -- is to coordinate preparations, such as compensating Jewish settlers and finding new homes for them.

The panel discussed responsibilities assigned each ministry taking part in the pullout.

Early plans presented to the committee called for the government to begin in August to pay settlers to leave voluntarily, Israeli media reported. The complete pullout, involving forcible expulsion if necessary, would be carried out by Sept. 30, 2005, under the tentative timetable.

Under the withdrawal plan the Cabinet approved in principle Sunday, Israel will evacuate all 21 Gaza Strip settlements and four isolated West Bank communities before 2006. In a compromise, the ministers delayed a final decision on dismantling the settlements until after preparations have been made, a task expected to take six to nine months.

The planning session occurred as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon faced an altered political landscape because of the departure from his government of two pro-settlement officials from the National Religious Party who quit in protest of the Cabinet action.

The pair's departure leaves the party with four members in the parliament, or Knesset, who remain allied with Sharon. Party members are locked in a divisive internal debate over whether to leave the governing coalition altogether.

The move to quit the coalition is being led by party leader Effi Eitam, who resigned from his Cabinet post as housing minister Tuesday. A deputy minister, Yitzhak Levy, also quit.

The resignations left Sharon with a nominal Knesset minority, 59 of 120 members. Another right-wing party, the National Union, with seven parliamentary seats, joined the opposition last week after Sharon fired a pair of its ministers in a bid to ensure a Cabinet majority for his plan.

But the prime minister, who heads the rightist Likud Party, does not appear to face an immediate threat of being toppled as long as he enjoys the protection of the left-leaning Labor Party. He may also gain the occasional backing of two Knesset members who are not officially part of Sharon's bloc.

There is increasing talk about bringing Labor into the governing coalition, which would solidify the prime minister's position.

Labor Party leaders have said they would not join the government unless Israel's attorney general, Menachem Mazuz, clears Sharon in a pending bribery case. The state prosecutor has recommended indictment. Mazuz is expected to make a decision next week.

During a briefing for foreign reporters Wednesday, a senior government official said Sharon was "as determined as can be" to evacuate Gaza. Skeptics have voiced concern that the Cabinet action could prove empty because it deferred a vote on taking down the settlements.

Israel plans to compensate the 7,500 Jewish settlers in Gaza and raze the approximately 600 homes. Land and other buildings, including greenhouses and packing plants, would be handed over to a third-party trust made up of European countries and international institutions, under plans still being developed.

The government official, who requested anonymity, said preparations for the withdrawal might improve the prospects for negotiations with the Palestinians. Sharon and his Palestinian Authority counterpart, Ahmed Korei, have not met since the latter took office last fall.

Sharon has argued that Israel was prompted to act unilaterally because it had no negotiating partner. Palestinians have welcomed a withdrawal but said it should be done as part of a broader peace agreement. The Bush administration has endorsed the Gaza pullout.

Egypt is offering to beef up patrols along its border with the Gaza Strip and to help train Palestinian security forces in preparation for a withdrawal.

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