With coalition members deeply divided over his unilateral disengagement plan, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed yesterday to remove all Jewish settlements from Gaza by 2005 and to replace Israeli troops in the area with a greater Egyptian military presence.
Speaking to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Sharon said that upon its withdrawal from Gaza, Israel would bulldoze settlement houses – and that apartment buildings for Palestinians would be constructed in their place. Palestinian workers living in the Gaza Strip would not be allowed to enter Israel for work after the disengagement takes place, and Israel would discontinue providing electricity and other infrastructure services to the area.
Although the plan, which calls for an immediate and full evacuation, is not supported by a majority of his government, Sharon said he expects the plan to be approved at a Knesset meeting Sunday.
It is widely speculated that before the Sunday meeting Sharon will fire two ministers from the National Union coalition who are leading the opposition to his plan.
“I am determined to advance the plan. I have a mission to ensure there will be a majority,” Sharon said.
Meanwhile, Absorption Minister Tzipi Livni of the Likud introduced an amended plan yesterday that has gained momentum among several important Knesset members who have been wavering with regard to Sharon’s more immediate plan.
Livni’s version calls for a vote Sunday on only the general principle of disengagement. The government would then have nine months to formulate a detailed evacuation plan, after which the actual dismantling of settlements would be brought back to the cabinet for a separate vote.
Livni says she hopes to save Sharon’s coalition and avoid the firing of ministers.
But the White House said President Bush only supports the original version of the plan presented by Sharon in April.
“During Prime Minister Sharon’s meeting with President Bush last April, the prime minister presented a plan that included withdrawal from certain military installations and all settlements in Gaza and withdrawal of certain military installations and settlements in the West Bank,” White House spokesman Sean McCormack said.
“It is that plan that President Bush endorsed in his statement on April 14, 2004, as a bold initiative that could advance the cause of peace and it is that plan that he supports and no other,” McCormack added.
Sharon also told Knesset members yesterday that his plan includes a Jordanian presence in the West Bank, as well as an Egyptian security contingent in Gaza.
Jordan controlled the West Bank for 19 years, until Israel won it in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher said his country would consider training Palestinian police forces, but Israel would first have to broker a cease-fire with the Palestinian militants and urge implementation of Bush’s road map plan for Middle East peace.
A poll published Tuesday in the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv showed a majority of all Israeli citizens and Likud voters support Sharon’s disengagement plan. According to the poll, 55 percent of the public and 54 percent of Likud members back Sharon’s version.
The plan is a substantial change in position for Sharon, who as housing minister under Yitzchak Shamir built many of the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.