Sharon considers mooting revised Gaza plan

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is considering bringing a slightly revised version of his Gaza pull-out plan to the Cabinet within two weeks, including a phased withdrawal and a possible international force to guard the border, an Israeli government official said on Wednesday.

Sharon has been trying to revive the pull-out plan since his Likud Party rejected the proposal in a referendum earlier this month. Sharon has said he remains committed to the plan, which opinion polls show is supported by a solid majority of Israelis.

Sharon is trying to guarantee a majority in his Cabinet. He hopes the minor revisions will enable Likud ministers to bypass the party veto.

According to a government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Sharon has decided against bringing the plan for Cabinet approval on Sunday.
He may bring it to the ministers the following week, the official said.

One of the changes Sharon is considering is making the evacuation phased, allowing for Cabinet approval at every stage, said a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Originally, Sharon’s plan called for a complete evacuation of all Gaza Strip settlements and four West Bank enclaves in one move.

The new plan would allow Cabinet ministers to halt the pull-out at any one of three stages if Palestinian violence continues, the official said.

The first settlements to be evacuated would be the isolated Gaza enclaves of Netzarim and Kfar Darom, he added.

In addition, Sharon is considering asking an international force—probably led by Egypt—to secure the Gaza-Egypt border, where Palestinians have dug weapons-smuggling tunnels.

But Cabinet minister Tzipi Livni said it is unclear whether the Cabinet—which has ardently opposed international forces anywhere in the West Bank or Gaza Strip—would support such a move.

Sharon may also call for the destruction of the evacuated settlements, which under the original plan were supposed to be handed to the Palestinians intact. In addition, Israel may seek financial compensation for evacuating three industrial zones, the official said.

Sharon has said the plan is necessary in the absence of peacemaking with the Palestinians. He received strong United States backing last month for his “disengagement plan”, including assurances that Israel could hold on to chunks of the West Bank under a final peace deal.

Sharon and his advisers fear they will lose the US assurances if they make drastic changes to the disengagement plan.

At the moment, officials calculate 11 Cabinet ministers support the plan and 11 oppose it. According to officials in Sharon’s office, the prime minister has to persuade one more of his 23 ministers to back the proposal—most likely Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom—for it to pass.

According to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, Shalom has decided to support the revised plan in exchange for being allowed to reopen talks with the Palestinians on fighting terrorism and implementing the US-backed “road map” peace plan.

The next stage would be to bring the plan before Parliament, where officials say passage is uncertain.—Sapa-AP

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