Minister Sharansky Resigns in Protest Over Disengagement Plan

Diaspora Affairs minister condemns failure to condition disengagement on PA reforms; PM praises his work.

Minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Natan Sharansky announced his resignation from the government Monday to protest Israel's failure to condition the disengagement plan on democratic reforms in the Palestinian Authority.

"Waiving this condition will weaken the chances of building a free Palestinian society and support terror," Sharansky wrote his letter of resignation, which he submitted to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday morning.

Sharansky warned that the plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and part of the northern West Bank was a mistake that would make it more difficult to achieve a genuine peace.

"I always saw the disengagement plan as a tragic error, which demands a heavy price from us and also encourages terror," said Sharansky in remarks broadcast on Army Radio.

"The only justification for the existence of the government in its current composition is the implementation of the disengagement plan," said Sharansky. "I don't think I can be a part of the government."

Sharansky will remain a Knesset member from the Likud, Army Radio reported.

He said he waited until now before resigning because there had been other possible obstacles to the pullout plan, including government votes and a proposed national referendum on the plan.

Sharansky also addressed what he views as the failure of the government to take the necessary steps to prevent internal strife that may result from the pullout.

"We are standing before a terrible rift in the nation and to my regret I sense no effort by the government to prevent it," he wrote.

Sharon opened the weekly cabinet meeting by praising Sharansky, who was not in attendance.

Sharansky did "outstanding work in advancing the issue of dealing with anti-Semitism throughout the world," Sharon said, adding that he would have been happy to have Sharansky stay in the government.

Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that while he doesn't agree with the reasons Sharansky quit, the resignation displays his commitment to his principles.

"It's characteristic of the integrity that has typified Natan Sharansky for his entire public life and his courage in following through all the way on his beliefs," Olmert said.

Sharansky, whose Yisrael B'aliyah immigrants party merged with Likud when Sharon formed the government upon his election, has consistently expressed opposition to the prime minister's disengagement plan.

He had hinted in the past he would not remain in a government responsible for evacuating Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and said in an interview Monday that he had told Sharon he planned to resign after Passover, which ended in Israel on Saturday night.