Israeli prime minister faces battle

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was facing a battle on Monday to keep his coalition from fracturing and maintain his majority in Parliament after winning qualified Cabinet approval for his Gaza pullout plan.

In Cairo, meanwhile, preparations ahead of the withdrawal were going ahead with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom seeking to secure Egypt’s cooperation to ensure security once the evacuation is completed.

The Israeli Cabinet voted 14 to seven late on Sunday for a revised version of the premier’s so-called disengagement plan, which envisages a phased evacuation of all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four others in the northern West Bank.

But under the terms of a compromise solution, no withdrawals will take place until March next year at the earliest while each phase will be subject to separate votes in Cabinet.

Sharon declared after the vote that “the disengagement process has begun” and underlined his intention to “relocate” the settlements by the end of next year.

But the premier’s victory has come at a price. After sacking two members of the hard-right National Union, he now enjoys the theoretical support of just 62 MPs in the 120-seat Parliament.

And another coalition partner, the National Religious Party (NRP), could also bolt the government after expressing its fury at Sunday’s decision.

“The NRP will not put its hand to this programme nor to any government which accepts such a terrible decision. The terrible vision that means the Gaza Strip will be clean of Jews ... will not happen,” said NPR leader and Housing Minister Effi Eitam.

Army radio reported that party leaders held talks on Monday about whether to remain in the government but did not reach a firm decision.

Some deputies of the premier’s Likud party are also furious that he is pushing ahead with the Gaza plan after it was overwhelmingly rejected in a ballot of party members five weeks ago.

But while their loyalty in Parliament can no longer be taken for granted, any attempt to unseat Sharon looks likely to be hampered by a failure to agree on an alternative.

Speculation is rising that Sharon may turn to the main opposition Labour party to keep his government afloat with its leader, Shimon Peres, tipped to become foreign minister.

The current incumbent, Shalom, arrived in the Egyptian capital on Monday for talks with senior officials including President Hosni Mubarak.

“We are working very closely with the Egyption authorities in order to impose law and order in Gaza during the [withdrawal] process and on the day after,” he told a joint press conference with Mubarak adviser Ossama al-Baz.

“We are now very close to implementing this understanding between Israel and Egypt that will allow them to have more than 100 troops that will be in the Egyptian part of Rafah.”

But Baz took a more cautious tone, saying: “All these points are still under discussion, because we want a model that will achieve security and stability there.”

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qorei welcomed Egypt’s involvement in any withdrawal process but expressed disappointment that a timetable has slipped away.

“At first they spoke about removing all the settlements and now they ignore the settlements issue. At first they speak about the date and now there is no date for a withdrawal,” Qorei told reporters after the weekly Cabinet meeting.

“We welcome any withdrawal from Gaza or the West Bank and we are ready to assume our responsibilities in any land they withdraw from.”

The White House, which has already endorsed the plan, welcomed the Cabinet’s decision, calling it a “courageous and historic step”.

A poll published by the leading Yediot Aharonot daily on Monday showed that a 52% majority of Israelis not only back a withdrawal from Gaza but want to see it carried out immediately, rather than in phases.

In the northern West Bank, meanwhile, a 24-year-old mentally handicapped Palestinian was shot down by Israeli troops, medics said.

Army sources said the man had failed to stop when warning shots were fired by a unit as he was approaching the area’s separation barrier.—Sapa-AFP

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