Sharon in cabinet showdown on Gaza withdrawal

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The Independent Online

Ariel Sharon, Israel's embattled Prime Minister, sought to recover the political initiative yesterday by unexpectedly deciding to revert to his original proposal to withdraw all 7,500 settlers from Gaza.

Ariel Sharon, Israel's embattled Prime Minister, sought to recover the political initiative yesterday by unexpectedly deciding to revert to his original proposal to withdraw all 7,500 settlers from Gaza.

At the same time he tried to make the disengagement plan more attractive to the increasingly restive hard right in the party and his government by promising to demolish synagogues and private houses in the Gaza settlements to prevent their use by Palestinians before withdrawing from the Strip.

Mr Sharon had earlier envisaged allowing housing stock in the settlements to be handed to the Palestinians in a transfer supervised by an international agency approved by Israel.

In what could prove a last-ditch gamble to preserve the disengagement plan Mr Sharon decided to return in other respects to the basic elements of the withdrawal proposal rejected last month in a referendum by Likud members, after failing to persuade dissident ministers to accept a more diluted version on Thursday.

Mr Sharon, locked in an increasingly perilous power struggle with three rebellious ministers led by Binyamin Netanyahu, the Finance Minister and the Prime Minister's principal rival, will have to use all his acknowledged political infighting skills if he is to gain a cabinet majority for the plan at tomorrow's crucial cabinet meeting.

Mr Netanyahu, the Education Minister, Limor Livnat, and the Foreign Minister, Sylvan Shalom, are all understood to have rejected a watered-down version, in which the cabinet would "recognise" Mr Sharon's overall plan for withdrawal from Gaza while committing themselves only to a withdrawal from three Gaza settlements - deferring any decision on the biggest settlement bloc, Gush Katif.

Mr Netanyahu made it clear on Thursday that while he was prepared to accept withdrawal from the three settlements, even such "recognition" was too much for him to swallow. Amid growing speculation by Israeli commentators that Mr Sharon's grip on power, if not yet on office, was fatally slipping, Mr Sharon then decided to go for broke by seeking to push the whole plan - albeit softened from the hard right's point of view by the promise to demolish settler housing. The plan would be implemented in stages but decided in its entirety.

Sources close to the Prime Minister acknowledged last night that a cabinet majority was still eluding him less than 48 hours before tomorrow's meeting, and made it clear that their hopes of securing one were focused on Mr Shalom.

The sources were at pains to point out that Mr Shalom would be unable to stay in office if the plan was approved because he would be unable to defend the policy abroad if he had voted against it.

Mr Shalom would also face the loss of his job, probably to the Labour leader, Shimon Peres, if Mr Sharon sought to forsake his own right wing and form a coalition with Labour. Equally, however, sources in Mr Shalom's own ministry predicted that his current inclination would be to throw in his lot with Mr Netanyahu at tomorrow's meeting.

Mr Sharon's office insisted that the demolition pledge was not intended to "punish" the Palestinians and that other public buildings and utilities would be handed over intact. But it was intended to avoid an outcry among settlers and their supporters, one source said, against the use by Palestinians of synagogue buildings and "giving the houses of murdered settlers to the families of those who murdered them".

There was some speculation in government circles that Mr Sharon might even issue a dramatic resignation threat at the cabinet meeting in an attempt to call Mr Netanyahu's bluff. But, government sources argued, even if Mr Sharon is defeated tomorrow, he will have earned credit points with the US administration by trying to push through the whole plan rather than a diluted version.

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