jerusalem | Despite winning only a piecemeal vote in his Cabinet over the Gaza disengagement plan, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon immediately began to move forward this week as if the plan had passed without reservations.

The version of the plan the Cabinet approved by a 14-7 vote Sunday, June 6, was a withdrawal in principle, but the Cabinet did not vote on actually dismantling any Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip or West Bank.

Nevertheless three days after the vote, Sharon’s government held the first meeting of a steering committee set up to implement the plan. The prime minister said he would not wait for a second vote.

The committee met on Wednesday, June 9, to discuss how the various aspects of the plan will be implemented and the tasks that will be designated to the respective government ministries.

At the same time this week, anger over the disengagement vote resulted in two members of the National Religious Party quitting Sharon’s government and a third one planning to do so as well. Although this leaves Sharon with only a 59-minority vote in the 120-member Knesset, the opposition Labor Party said midweek that it will support the prime minister and even begin negotiations to enter his government.

At the first meeting of the steering committee, Justice Ministry Director-General Aharon Abramovich said the group will need to focus on the issue of compensation for relocated settlers and alternative settlements.

But that was a given considering that the committee is headed by National Security Adviser Giora Eiland, who was responsible for drawing up the disengagement plan. Also participating are senior officials from the Defense Ministry and other governmental departments.

As a result of the session, the Internal Affairs Ministry was ordered to immediately provide the names of all settlers in areas to be evacuated; the Trade, Industry and Labor Ministry was told to prepare plans on relocating Israeli industries from the Gaza region to other southern locations; and the Foreign Ministry is to interface with international organizations, such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund, regarding their involvement in the disengagement.

The Justice Ministry and the advocate general of the Israel Defense Forces have begun preparing the legal background to the disengagement steps.

The ministries were asked to accelerate their activities as well as the implementation of decisions taken. The committee is to meet again at the end of the month.

Meanwhile in Washington, the State Department voiced support for Sharon’s plan, but there were rumblings that it doesn’t go far enough.

“What the Israeli Cabinet endorsed and what President Bush endorsed is withdrawal from all the settlements in Gaza and certain settlements in the West Bank by a definite date,” State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Monday, June 7. “That’s what we signed up to — or that’s the plan that we gave our support to in April. And in our view, that continues to be the plan that the Israelis are working on.”

Wavering Cabinet ministers, however, insisted on excluding from the Cabinet’s resolution the letters that Bush and Sharon exchanged in April. The letters commit to the full withdrawal, while the Cabinet vote vaguely commits Israel only to the principle of disengagement from the Palestinians.

Sharon has most of the international community behind him, including Egypt, which borders Gaza.

The revised disengagement plan approved June 6 differs from Sharon’s original program in that the settlements are to be evacuated in stages, with a Cabinet vote before each stage. The text explicitly states that the June 6 decision does not sanction the evacuation of a single settlement, but it does divide the settlements earmarked for evacuation into four groups, establishes committees to plan relocation and compensation for evacuated settlers, and sets a March 1, 2005 deadline for a vote on evacuating the first group.

That was enough for the diplomatic “Quartet,” the group working for Middle East peace, to welcome the revised plan, and for the United States to describe it as “historic” and “courageous.”

But the key outside player, it seems, will be Egypt. The Egyptians fear that if Israel withdraws unilaterally from Gaza without an orderly transfer of power, the strip could become a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism, with dangerous consequences for Egypt as well as for Israel.

Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak does not want Gaza to become a base for political subversion against Egypt. The Egyptians therefore are doing all they can to broker a smooth transfer of power to the Palestinian Authority and to give it the tools to keep Hamas and Islamic Jihad at bay.

JTA’s Leslie Susser who is diplomatic correspondent for The Jerusalem Report, and JTA Washington bureau chief Ron Kampeas contributed to this report.


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