Sharansky quits government over Gaza withdrawal

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The Independent Online

A senior minister in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's cabinet has resigned in protest at the plan to evacuate all 21 Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and four from the northern West Bank this summer.

A senior minister in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's cabinet has resigned in protest at the plan to evacuate all 21 Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and four from the northern West Bank this summer.

Natan Sharansky, a Soviet dissident turned Zionist hawk, was the most recalcitrant cabinet critic of disengagement from within Mr Sharon's Likud party. His resignation from the post of Israel's Diaspora Minister will give fresh hope to opponents of the withdrawal programme.

Ehud Yatom, a dissenting Likud MP, welcomed Mr Sharansky's defection, which he said would give a "renewed momentum to the struggle against the disengagement". But Isaac Herzog, Labour's Housing Minister, said it would strengthen the chances for withdrawal. "He was its main opponent within government. Sharon will replace him with one of his Likud supporters."

The coalition now has 13 Likud ministers and eight Labour. The right-wing majority yesterday pushed through a proposal to upgrade a West Bank college to a full university. Britain's Association of University Teachers voted last month to boycott Bar-Ilan University because of its links with the college in the settler town of Ariel. The decision, opposed by Labour, was presented as a tit-for-tat.

In his resignation letter, Mr Sharansky - the author of a recent bestseller, The Case for Democracy, which was embraced by President George Bush - said he could no longer serve in a government whose only focus was the advancement of a plan he rejected.

He said: "Every concession in the peace process on the part of Israel must be conditioned on democratic reforms on the Palestinian side. The disengagement plan does not meet this basic condition."

Mr Sharansky, born in the Ukraine in 1948, made his mark in the early Seventies as an ever-available foreign press spokesman for Andrei Sakharov's human rights movement. He later played a leading role in the Soviet Jewish campaign for free emigration to Israel. As a maths graduate of the Moscow Technical Institute, he was refused an exit visa on "security" grounds.

Convicted in 1978 on trumped-up charges of treason and spying for the US, he was sentenced to 13 years' jail. He spent most of the next eight years in the Siberian Gulag before being freed as part of an East-West exchange at Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie.

Since settling in Israel in 1986, Mr Sharansky has espoused the settler cause and turned a blind eye to the human rights of three million occupied Palestinians. Although he claimed yesterday he did not want Israel to rule over another people, he was among the architects of a recent plan, vetoed by the attorney general, to seize Palestinian-owned land near Jerusalem that fell on the Israeli side of the separation wall.

Effi Eitam, a far-right former minister who also resigned from the government, hailed the resignation of an "international human rights symbol" such as Mr Sharansky, as "a big moral victory for the anti-disengagement camp." But Roman Bronfman, a left-wing Russian immigrant MP, said it showed that "a human rights activist who fought against the Soviets has become a warmonger for the occupation".

Preparations for the disengagement, now expected to begin in the second half of August, are slow. Of the 1,500 Gaza settler families and 200 in the four West Bank communities, only 100 have signed up to take compensation and go quietly.

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