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Sharon Meets Ministers to Push Gaza Pullout Plan

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) will ask his Cabinet to vote only on the first stage of his newly revised Gaza withdrawal plan — the evacuation of three small settlements — in hopes of securing the support of undecided ministers, officials said Thursday.

Sharon apparently backed away from submitting the entire plan for approval because he has had trouble securing a majority in his 23-member Cabinet.

Earlier this month, Sharon's Likud Party (search) rejected a Gaza withdrawal in a referendum, leaving the prime minister politically weakened. Sharon has since revised the plan to split it into four phases rather than withdrawing from the entire Gaza Strip all at once.

On Sunday, the Cabinet is due to debate the new plan. However, he will ask for a vote only on the first stage, which calls for the evacuation of three of the 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza, the officials close to the negotiations said on condition of anonymity.

They said three key ministers, including Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, agreed to support the first phase, giving Sharon the majority he needs. Netanyahu and Shalom have said they oppose a withdrawal from all of Gaza.

The support of Netanyahu, a former prime minister and Sharon's biggest rival in Likud, is crucial for the plan's acceptance.

Sharon previously had secured the support of only 11 Cabinet. Eight said they opposed the plan, while Netanyahu, Shalom and two others were undecided, but leaning toward a "no" vote.

Ministers were to receive a copy of the plan late Thursday.

There was growing speculation about Sharon's political future. The Maariv daily quoted sources close to Netanyahu as saying he would have the backing of a majority of parliament members if he were to challenge for the leadership.

Also, Sharon's key coalition partner, the centrist Shinui Party (search), said it would reconsider its future in the government if the plan does not go ahead.

"We will convene our institutions, hold a debate and decide," Shinui Minister Joseph Paritzky told Israel Radio.

On Wednesday, an Israeli official said the new plan would see Israel pull out of Gaza and part of the West Bank in four stages.

Under the plan, three or four isolated Gaza settlements would be evacuated first, followed by the removal of other Israeli communities, a military withdrawal from Gaza and the evacuation of four small settlements in the northern part of the West Bank.

The Cabinet would vote on each stage.

Also, the new plan calls for many of the evacuated buildings to be destroyed.

The Haaretz daily reported Thursday that the withdrawal plan was expected to be carried out by the end of 2005, a target date similar to the first plan. It also said that details of the plan were expected to be presented to Jordan and Egypt on Thursday.

In a stinging defeat for the prime minister, Sharon's Likud Party rejected his original plan — which called for a pullout in one step — in a referendum on May 2, even though the plan had U.S. backing. After the party veto, the "Quartet" of Mideast mediators — the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations — also endorsed the pullout plan.

Analysts say the revised plan will cause Sharon just as much trouble as his original one, because opponents object in principle to evacuating settlements. They would just as vigorously oppose a blueprint for removing a few at a time as they would a one-step program.

Polls indicate a majority of Israelis support the plan.

Palestinians have been ambivalent about the proposal, demanding coordination with the Israelis over a withdrawal but welcoming, in principle, any Israeli evacuation of the Palestinian areas.

Promoting his failed original plan, Sharon said that there is no future for 7,500 Jewish settlers among 1.3 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, and the 21 settlements there must be sacrificed in order to assure the existence of settlements in the West Bank, where more than 200,000 Jews live in about 150 settlements.

In Gaza, three Israeli tanks and a bulldozer entered Palestinian territory destroyed three Palestinian houses near the town of Deir el-Balah, witnesses and Palestinian security officials said.

The military said an operation was under way in an area where militants operate. The operation came days after the army ended a nearly weeklong offensive in the Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza.

In the West Bank city of Nablus, troops demolished two houses of Palestinians involved in suicide bombings, the army said.