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Sharon's coalition wobbles after Gaza pullout vote
Updated: 2004-06-07 13:47

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's coalition was in danger of collapse Monday as a rightist partner considered bolting after he extracted a cabinet majority in favor of his Gaza withdrawal plan.

It passed by a 14-7 vote Sunday but only after Sharon placated mutinous ministers in his own right-wing Likud party by agreeing not to evacuate Jewish settlements for at least nine months and then only in four phases each requiring another vote.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon salutes prior to his address in the Birthright-Israel International Conference in Jerusalem, Sunday June 6, 2004, after the cabinet passed his Gaza disengagement plan by a 14-7 majority.  [AP]
Hedged by politicking, the historic decision could become a hostage to fortune if Palestinian militants pull off further major attacks in their resolve to prove they forced an Israeli retreat, which could harden rightists against carrying it out.

"The struggle over leaving Gaza did not end yesterday. It only began," political commentator Nahum Barnea wrote in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily. "This is the Middle East: Lots of bad things can happen here in half a year, let alone nine months."

U.S. President George W. Bush endorsed Sharon's blueprint to "disengage" from conflict with Palestinians as a potential means of reviving the U.S.-backed peace "road map."

Polls show most Israelis are behind Sharon too, seeing Gaza as a bloody liability rather than the biblical birthright touted by 7,500 settlers living in hard-to-defend enclaves amid 1.3 million Palestinians.

Palestinians welcome any pullout but suspect Sharon wants to swap Gaza for West Bank areas they need for a viable state.


The pro-settler National Religious Party, linchpin of Sharon's parliamentary majority, was debating whether to quit the cabinet in protest the vote.

Sharon was clinging to a majority of just one seat in the Knesset after firing two far-right ministers to secure the cabinet vote.

If the NRP abandoned Sharon, his coalition would drop to 55 seats in the 120-member parliament, opening the way either to a possible unity government with the pro-withdrawal Labor Party, which has 19 legislators, or new elections.

"No tricks of language can cover up one of the darkest decisions ever taken by an Israeli government, which means expulsion of Jewish residents and setting up a Hamas terrorist state," Housing Minister Effi Eitam of the NRP told reporters.

Political sources said Eitam called for the party to jump ship at a NRP meeting Sunday but its other minister in the cabinet demurred. Further NRP deliberations were expected.

"The decision adopted (by the cabinet) was for more debate before settlement evacuation. Therefore, I hope the NRP will realize that logic dictates it should stay in the government," Health Minister Danny Naveh of the Likud told Israel Radio.

The deal Sharon struck with Likud hard-liners allows "preparatory work" for the evacuation of all 21 settlements in Gaza and four of the 120 in the West Bank to begin, which would entail finding new homes for uprooted Israelis.

"Disengagement is getting under way," he said afterwards.

But by bowing to future votes of his unruly cabinet for each phase of withdrawal, Sharon effectively left the fate of the settlements, slated for removal by the end of 2005, in the air.

His original plan, spurned in a May 2 Likud party vote, envisioned getting out of Gaza all at once.

In a boost for Sharon, Labor decided to withdraw a parliamentary no-confidence motion that was to have been debated Monday, temporarily averting another threat to the coalition.

But it showed no inclination to join him in power before a decision, which is not expected before mid-June, by the attorney general on whether to indict Sharon in a bribery scandal.

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