Sharons Likud backers backing away

jerusalem | Israel’s justice minister has become the country’s most important mediator.

Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, head of the centrist Shinui Party, has been shuttling between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a bid to keep the two old rivals from tearing the government apart and jeopardizing Israel’s standing with the United States.

At the heart of the dispute is Sharon’s revised disengagement plan from the Palestinians, which the Cabinet was meant to approve on Sunday, May 30. But the new four-stage program to remove all settlements in the Gaza Strip and some in the West Bank did little to mollify doubters led by Netanyahu, who said the plan would put Israel’s national security at risk.

“You do not have a monopoly on concern for the country’s defense,” Netanyahu was quoted as telling Sharon during a stormy, seven-hour Cabinet debate, which adjourned without a vote on the plan. The ministers are to reconvene next week.

Lapid wants the Cabinet to commit to the first stage of the plan — the removal of Gaza’s Netzarim, Morag and Rafah Yam settlements by early 2005 — with a more general understanding that the rest of the evacuations will follow on a looser schedule.

But political sources said Sharon was balking at the proposal, having already been forced to revise the U.S.-backed plan after his own Likud Party rejected it in a May 2 referendum. In a bid to keep the Bush administration on his side, the prime minister dispatched his chief aide, Dov Weisglass, to Washington for talks with the White House’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, on Tuesday, June 1.

The Bush administration took a political gamble by offering Sharon strong support for the plan, and was flummoxed by Likud’s subsequent rejection of the deal.

Weisglass reassured Rice that Sharon remained committed to the plan as it was outlined to Bush.

Rice, for her part, reportedly told Weisglass that Bush supported the plan only in its original version and would not settle for watered-down versions of it, according to Ha’aretz.

If the Israeli Cabinet fails to approve the disengagement plan, it “would mean, to some degree, compromising the standing of the United States in the international sphere,” Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, told Israeli Army Radio. “There is no going back. Even if the government does not adopt the plan, whether today or tomorrow, it will not disappear.”

Sharon was to deliver a Knesset address hours in response to three no-confidence motions, but he ended up canceling the appearance, citing scheduling problems. The opposition cried foul, withdrawing the motions until Tuesday, June 8.

“Sharon did not want to turn up and face rebellion from his own Likud Party,’ said Dalia Itzik, head of the opposition Labor Party’s faction.

JTA Washington bureau chief Ron Kampeas contributed to this story.