Sharon wins Cabinet victory on Gaza plan

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The Independent Online

Ariel Sharon secured a historic cabinet decision in favour of withdrawing 7,500 Jewish settlers from Gaza yesterday after the most dramatic day for Israeli politics since he took office more than three years ago.

After a week of turbulent manoeuvring within the government coalition and his ruling Likud party, the determined Israeli Prime Minister finally managed to turn a 12-11 majority against the plan to dismantle 21 Gaza settlements into a comfortable 14-7 majority in favour.

The decision to call the first halt to the relentless growth in settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories ­ a growth fostered originally by Mr Sharon himself ­ was lent potent symbolism by its timing on the eve of the 37th anniversary of the opening of the Six Day War which delivered the West Bank and Gaza into Israeli hands.

Ehud Olmert, the Deputy Prime Minister and a fierce proponent of the plan to withdraw from Gaza ­ one backed by a large majority of Israelis in polls ­ described the decision as a "historic turning point in the policy of the state of Israel".

The split within Likud between Sharon supporters and a group of right-wing dissidents led by the Prime Minister's main rival, the Finance Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was resolved initially by a compromise which provided for a separate decision by the government before settlements would be evacuated.

Then, shortly before 7pm, Mr Netanyahu, and his allies ­ Limor Livnat, the Education Minister, and Sylvan Shalom, the Foreign Minister ­ walked out in protest at Mr Sharon's decision to seek cabinet ratification of the letters which he exchanged with President George Bush in April and which explicitly provided for the withdrawal of all 21 Gaza settlements. Finally, however, the Likud dissidents backed Mr Sharon.

The dissidents had claimed that the compromise was a victory for them and meant they had not voted to dismantle settlements "in principle and in practice". That was dismissed as wishful thinking by one senior government official, who said of the decision to withdraw the settlements: "The train is out of the station."

Ironically, this interpretation was vindicated by one of the fiercest opponents of withdrawal from Gaza at yesterday's meeting ­ the far-right National Religious Party's Effie Eitam, who declared: "No word laundry can bleach one of the blackest decisions ever taken by an Israeli government, which means expulsion of thousands of residents and the creation of a Hamas terror state."

The earlier angry walkout had been staged by the pro-disengagement Shinui when its leader, Tommy Lapid, discovered that the decision would not set a date for implementing the withdrawal plan. The Shinui members returned after Mr Sharon made it clear he would declare publicly that a date would be set by March 2005.

The cabinet meeting was held despite a recommendation by the High Court that it be delayed until Tuesday for the hearing of challenges to Mr Sharon's earlier sacking of Avigdor Lieberman and Benny Elon, the two ministers from the extreme-right National Union party. After the court later upheld the sackings, Mr Eitam and his colleagues in the NRP, the other small far-right party, met to decide whether to remain in the government or rob it of its Knesset majority by walking out.

In a separate development yesterday, a Tel Aviv court sentenced the prominent Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti to five consecutive terms of life imprisonment and 40 years, after an earlier conviction for three attacks which killed four Israelis and a Greek Orthodox monk.