Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, intends to complete detailed plans by July for the evacuation of all 17 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.
The Deputy Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, said yesterday that he hoped the first settlers and soldiers would pull out by the end of the year.
Despite right-wing threats to bring down his government, Mr Sharon reiterated his determination to evacuate the settlements. "It pains me a lot," he said during a visit to the coastal town of Ashkelon. "But I've reached a decision and I'm going to carry it out."
Mr Olmert insisted that it was a matter of when, not if. "Israel will have to change the status quo," he added. "How long can we wait? How much more can we suffer and pay the price? We're not putting an end to any chance of future negotiations, but we are not prepared to accept the timetable of the Palestinians for when the process will start."
An opinion poll published yesterday in Yediot Aharonot, Israel's biggest-selling daily newspaper, found 59 per cent of voters supporting the Gaza evacuation with 34 per cent opposed. A majority, 57 per cent to 24 per cent, were convinced the Prime Minister was acting for political reasons, not because he wanted to distract attention from a police investigation of bribery charges against himself and his two sons.
Right-wing sceptics suggested that "the depth of the withdrawal would equal the depth of the investigation," but Mr Sharon maintained in an interview with Ma'ariv newspaper that he had taken Monday's initiative "despite the investigations, not because of them". He told the same newspaper that the choice was not between good and very good, but between bad and very bad. He acknowledged his own historic role as "godfather of the settlements" but argued that he had to worry about the future. "It would be better for Israel if there were no settlements in the Gaza Strip. That isn't bad for us. It is good for us. I need to reduce the number of people hurt, to rehabilitate the economy, to promote immigration, to create conditions for living and creativity. And I will do that."
Mr Sharon's aides confirmed that he might offer to cede some Israeli Arab towns and villages to Palestinian rule under a final agreement in exchange for West Bank settlement blocks near the pre-1967 border.
Despite their devotion to the Palestinian cause, many among Israel's Arab minority have already rejected such ideas. They prefer Israeli democracy, even though they accuse it of discriminating against them, and they value their relatively high standard of living.
Shimon Peres, the Labour opposition leader, has promised a parliamentary safety net for the evacuation plan, but discounted speculation that Labour might join the ruling coalition if Mr Sharon's hardline partners pulled out, although Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a former party chairman, conceded that it would be difficult for Labour to stay out if Mr Sharon implemented the disengagement.
The settlers are planning an advertising campaign with the slogan: "Uprooting settlements is a victory for terrorism."
Effie Eitam, the Minister of Housing and leader of the pro-settler National Religious Party, said it was only a matter of time before his party went into opposition. If Mr Sharon took his plan to Washington later this month, he predicted, it would be "the beginning of the end of the government".