Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will present a plan, only slightly modified, to the government for its approval of a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank, well-placed sources said this weekend. He will seek cabinet approval once he is sure one or more Likud ministers will support the plan, they said.
As Sharon struggled to resuscitate his plan to leave the Gaza Strip, Israel's left mounted an impressive show of strength at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv last night. While police do not give official figures for crowd sizes, organizers and on-the-spot participants estimated that 150,000 persons thronged the square to support a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. About 1,000 security staff were deployed for the demonstration, which passed without incident.
"This is a protest of the majority," opposition leader Shimon Peres told the crowd. "Eighty percent of our people want peace. One percent are trying to block it." .
"After months, the peace camp is awakening," Yossi Beilin, head of the left-wing Yahad party told reporters. But Ami Ayalon, the former head of the Shin Bet security service and recently a co-sponsor of the People's Voice peace initiative, said the tens of thousands taking part were not a genuine cross spectrum of Israeli society. "There are too few new immigrants here tonight, and not enough people from the Galilee and Negev, or from the low income towns," he said.
At the other end of the political spectrum, right-wing politicians criticized the Majority Coalition for organizing a political rally while newly bereaved parents were mourning the loss of their sons, the 13 IDF soldiers killed last week in a series of attacks on the Gaza Strip.
Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Zevulun Orlev (NRP) attacked the left for the "cynical exploitation of the deaths of 13 IDF fighters, who were killed during the fight against the terror infrastructure." He added: "This is yet another political failure of the left, which uses wrong ways to advance its political goals."
Minister of Tourism Binyamin Elon (National Union) said that "the same people who demonstrated during the Lebanon War and bandied about placards saying that Sharon is a traitor and a murderer are today rallying in support of Sharon." Such an about turn reflected the left's moral bankruptcy, Elon said.
Shas party chairman MK Eli Yishai said the rally slogan "Get out of Gaza" misleads the public. "Even the left's leaders grasp that we do not at this time have a partner for negotiations." Yishai criticized the show of support for the "plan for unilateral withdrawal which imposes risks, and does not promise any real benefits."
Regarding the modified withdrawal plan, the well-placed Israeli sources said Sharon will announce in about two weeks that it has been finalized. They say it will strongly resemble the disengagement plan that was soundly defeated two weeks ago in a Likud members' referendum. The territorial aspects of the plan will be identical - it will call for evacuation of all settlements in the Gaza Strip, and of four settlements on the West Bank.
However, to comply with requests from some of cabinet ministers, Sharon will add some new security measures and will take steps to ensure Palestinians do not misuse houses and other assets left behind when Israel evacuates the settlements.
This week there will be a series of meetings involving delegates from the U.S., Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Tomorrow U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice will meet PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) in Berlin, but Israeli officials last night did not expect the meeting to yield results. On Tuesday, Rice will meet Industry and Trade Minister Ehud Olmert, who will take part in AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) meetings in Washington.
On Monday, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom will go to Amman and meet officials from Jordan, Egypt and the PA. Later in the week, Egypt's intelligence chief Omar Suleiman will visit Israel and the PA. He played a leading role in efforts to return the remains of IDF soldiers killed last week on the Gaza Strip.
Sharon's bureau chief, Dov Weisglass, is going to Washington to discuss ways of moving ahead with the disengagement initiative after its defeat in the Likud referendum. U.S. officials expect to hear new ideas from Sharon, American and Israeli sources say.
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