Sharon's Gaza Plan Starts Guessing Game

What is Ariel Sharon (search) up to? That's what stunned Israelis were wondering last week after their prime minister said he would remove most Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip (search).

The old soldier, who always thought of settlements more in military than in biblical terms, explained that the tiny enclaves with 7,500 Israelis had become a security burden, a source of constant friction with 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza.

But few believed this was the entire story, that Israel's settlement czar had suddenly gone soft.

Many linked the timing of the announcement to a bribery probe against Sharon — saying he was creating expectations of a peace breakthrough in hopes it might make prosecutors think twice about bringing him down.

Others said that since Sharon became prime minister in 2001, he has moved methodically toward one goal: to keep at least half the West Bank. Unloading Gaza, that theory goes, would soften the criticism from abroad.

"Maybe he believes that while giving up on Gaza, he will be able to behave as the owner of the West Bank," said Yossi Beilin (search), a former Israeli peace negotiator.

Sharon appears to have left himself several escape routes, in case his plan seriously threatens his government.

He gave no timetable for a pullback. He says he will do it only with Washington's backing and if the U.S.-backed peace effort goes nowhere in coming months.

U.S. officials sound ambivalent, saying that while they welcome the dismantling of settlements, they are wary of Israel going it alone.

Sharon's caution was apparent in the way he revealed his Gaza plan. He first spoke about it to Haaretz newspaper columnist Yoel Marcus over breakfast, then in a closed-door meeting with legislators from his Likud Party and finally in a huddle with reporters in the parliament cafeteria.

There's no television or audio footage of Sharon actually saying he wants to dismantle 17 of the 21 Gaza settlements. But just talking about it may have created irreversible facts.

Columnist Marcus wrote Friday that Sharon appears determined to go ahead.

"I took my leave with the feeling that Sharon has embarked on a road of no return. Either he marches forward, or he's out of the game," Marcus wrote.

In recent weeks, Sharon has spoken repeatedly of unilateral moves if peace efforts fail — redeploying troops, dismantling some settlements and imposing a border on the Palestinians. However, he never gave details until this week when he said 7,500 Gaza settlers would be relocated.

The firestorm was inevitable.

Settler leaders threatened to bring down Sharon. They are allied with two of four parties in Sharon's coalition and can deprive him of a majority in parliament.

However, the opposition Labor Party says it will prop up the government if necessary, and polls last week showed a solid majority of Israelis supporting a pullout. Fenced-in Gaza is widely seen as a burden, while far fewer Israelis would back a West Bank withdrawal.

Surprisingly, some opposition to a withdrawal came from Israeli moderates, who worried that in its weakened state, Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority would be unable to stop Hamas and other Islamic militants from taking over Gaza.

Israel's military has opposed unilateral pullbacks, and generals were surprised by Sharon's plan. Military commentators warned it would make it easier for militants to smuggle weapons into Gaza, through tunnels or by sea, and that Israeli towns, already under occasional rocket fire from Gaza, could be in for worse.

Palestinian leaders were in a bind. They cannot object to dismantling settlements, but fear it is part of a plan to tighten Israel's grip on the West Bank.

Their suspicions were heightened Friday when Israeli officials confirmed that one idea being studied was to move the evicted Jews to the West Bank.

Yuval Steinitz, a Likud legislator, said a Gaza withdrawal should be backed by warnings to Palestinians that "if we don't have a partner for peace, then we will not withdraw from the West Bank."

Sharon apparently hopes a Gaza pullout will buy him time in the West Bank, several commentators said. He has suggested in the past that he wants to keep half the West Bank, at least in an interim arrangement that could last years.

Sharon's plan, now being drafted by his national security adviser, rests on a key assumption, commentator Shimon Shiffer wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily — that "evacuating most settlements in Gaza and several in the West Bank will ... ensure American acceptance of the Israeli presence in the West Bank."