JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appears to have swayed the majority of his Cabinet to support a revised plan to stagger the withdrawal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert suggested Tuesday.
Sharon is expected to present the new plan to the Cabinet on Sunday. Olmert told Israel's Army Radio that Sharon had the probable backing of 12 ministers -- the narrow majority he needed. The development came as Sharon's political standing was strengthened by reports that he might avoid indictment on bribery charges.
Sharon's first plan calling for an immediate "disengagement" from Gaza, including evacuating 7,500 settlers, was endorsed by the Bush administration, which saw the proposal as a way to rejuvenate the peace process. But it was rejected in a referendum by Sharon's conservative Likud Party.
Details of the revised plan have not been released, but it envisions a withdrawal in stages. It is unknown whether key Cabinet officials such as Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom support the plan.
In the radio interview, Olmert said that Sharon had 11 firm votes in the 23-member Cabinet and that he believed the prime minister could get one more. But Olmert would not identify the 12th minister.
"One man is missing," Olmert said. "I understand that it seems that we have already got this minister.... I assume it will be possible to convince at least one more minister."
A senior Israeli official said: "If Minister Olmert says the votes are there, he probably knows. Let's put it this way: After the Cabinet ministers receive a draft of the proposal on Thursday and assess it, then we'll know better. One thing I can tell you, Sharon will not present a plan that will not be approved."
Welfare Minister Zevulun Orlev, a member of the National Religious Party, said his party "will prevent the uprooting of settlements, even if this means we'll have to vote against the plan."
The revised proposal, according to the senior official, calls for a roughly four-stage pullout that covers isolated settlements scattered throughout Gaza, others concentrated in the north and south of the seaside strip, and four settlements in the Jenin area of the West Bank.
The Cabinet ministers would be asked to approve the overall framework and then each of the four stages. This formula, the official said, will give ministers more control over the plan if Palestinian attacks or political events place it in jeopardy.
Egypt's leaders have said that during the evacuations, their nation would help train Palestinian security forces and cut off supply routes used by Palestinian militants. The Egyptians also want a committee of Palestinian, Egyptian, Israeli and American officials to oversee the withdrawal.
Israel has just completed a military operation in the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza that it said was aimed at finding militants and closing tunnels used to smuggle weapons.
More than 40 Palestinians were killed and dozens were injured in the campaign, which drew sharp international criticism.
The Gaza plan's prospects for approval improved this week as Israeli media reported that Atty. Gen. Menachem Mazuz is leaning against indicting the prime minister in a bribery scandal. The charges stem from allegations that Israeli businessman David Appel attempted to bribe Sharon and his son, Gilad, with about $700,000 to facilitate the building of a tourism center on a Greek island.
A spokesman for the Justice Ministry said Mazuz had not made a decision and would announce his findings by June 15.
The possibility of an indictment has weakened Sharon politically, especially as he has attempted to muster support for the Gaza plan. If the legal threats disappear, the prime minister probably would gain momentum toward approval of the withdrawal.