Ministers' resignations push Sharon cabinet to the center

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is one step closer to pulling out of the Gaza Strip, a concept many Israeli leaders have championed in principle but failed to turn into reality in the more than 35 years since Israel took control of the territory.

But the political support Mr. Sharon will need in order to turn his latest plan into a reversal of "facts on the ground" - the removal of nearly 8,000 Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip - took a fresh hit Tuesday when two of his government ministers resigned from the cabinet.

Minister Effi Eitam and Deputy Minister Yitzhak Levy from the National Religious Party (NRP) announced their resignations in protest of the cabinet's decision to pass Sharon's disengagement plan, which calls for a gradual withdrawal of settlements and military installations in the Gaza Strip, as well as the dismantling of a few small settlement outposts in the northern West Bank.

"The flag of the Land of Israel has been lowered to half-mast in your days," Mr. Levy, the deputy ministry of housing, wrote in his resignation letter to Sharon. "The wonderful settlement movement feels you are hunting it down." At a conference, Mr. Eitam warned supporters that the disengagement plan would lead to the establishment of a "Hamas terror state" in the Gaza Strip.

The resignations are sowing confusion and uncertainty in a government already in crisis over the plans to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, even though no actual evacuation of settlers is expected to take place earlier than next March.

The NRP is considered the flagship of the Israeli settlement movement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but it has decided to stay in the government rather than deal itself out of the major decisionmaking in the months to come. Although it is seen primarily as a lobbying group for the settlers' interests, its influence has been formidable. Last month, party activists - most of whom oppose any transfer of land to Palestinian control - succeeded in thwarting Sharon's disengagement plan in a Likud party referendum.

Now, if the party pulls out of the coalition, Sharon would be left with 55 seats in the 120-member Knesset. That would most likely encourage Sharon to bring the left-wing Labor Party back into the government, presaging possibilities of a more centrist agenda and a return to negotiations with the Palestinians.

Indeed, for some here, the vote in Sharon's cabinet to withdraw from the Gaza Strip is as historic as the day America put the first man on the moon. But whether it is simply a small step or truly a giant leap is the subject of great debate.

To critics, Sharon's plan is a watered-down version of his rejected proposal last month and will be subject to the whims of the day when he tries to implement it. To enthusiasts, the first Israeli government stamp of approval for a Gaza withdrawal - and the fact that far-right politicians were fired or marginalized as a result - means that Israel could be flowing toward a sea change moderates have craved.

"What this means is a political weakening of the Right and its ability to drag the center with it, and that could have extremely important consequences," says Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "We can see a new center bloc, built of Labor, Likud and Shinui [a party with a secularist agenda] and it could create, for the first time in years, the power for political action and compromise with the Palestinians."

Though Sharon has set out a generous time table for withdrawal, he will first need to find new coalition partners to prevent the success of a no-confidence motion to be forwarded next week in the Knesset.

Palestinians, meanwhile, do not seem impressed with his plan. "This approval he got in the cabinet doesn't include approving the withdrawal from Gaza," says Palestinian Authority Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib.

"The compromise that they reached among themselves ducks out on the issue of settlement evacuation. It just buys time and keeps the coalition together."

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