JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) said Wednesday he plans to present his full Gaza withdrawal plan to his divided Cabinet next week and is confident it will pass.
The Cabinet has been sharply split over the plan, and Sharon appeared to be one vote short of approval. In recent days, officials have worked to come up with a compromise plan to secure a Cabinet majority.
After speaking to the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Sharon said he would present his full plan for evacuating all 21 settlements in Gaza and four isolated settlements in the West Bank to the Cabinet on Sunday.
"The plan will be passed on Sunday," Sharon said.
However, the Cabinet would only approve the staged withdrawal plan in principle, Sharon said. It would have to vote again before any part of the plan -- including the evacuation of settlements -- could be implemented, he said.
According to officials, that formulation would win a Cabinet majority, but it was unclear whether the most hawkish parties in the coalition would remain.
Sharon told the Knesset committee the withdrawals would be completed by the end of next year, according to lawmakers at the meeting.
In Washington, Sharon aide Dov Weisglass met Tuesday with U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice (search) to discuss Sharon's determination to carry out the plan. A White House official said the U.S. endorses the Gaza pullout plan Sharon presented there in April.
Many ministers, even some in Sharon's own Likud Party, oppose the proposal, saying it is counterproductive to withdraw from Gaza amid ongoing violence.
Sharon has threatened to fire some hardline ministers to ensure the plan's approval, a move that could trigger a rebellion on Sharon's Likud Party. A senior government official told The Associated Press the crisis could lead to national elections in the next three to four months.
Shimon Peres said Wednesday his Labor Party would vote in favor of any removal of settlements in the parliament but would not join Sharon's government.
Also Wednesday, Israeli troops entered the West Bank city of Ramallah and chased a car containing two Palestinians wanted for questioning, Palestinian sources said. The two men sought refuge in Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's (search) compound, but Arafat's guards refused to allow them to enter and handed them over to Israeli forces at the compound's gates.
The army said it detained one man. Palestinian sources said the army briefly questioned the other man and then released him. Arafat has been confined to the partially demolished compound for two years and Sharon told the Knesset he had no plans to allow Arafat to leave.
In ongoing violence in Gaza, Israeli troops shot and killed two Palestinians carrying three rocket-propelled grenades and a launcher near a road frequented by Jewish settlers, the army said.
The road near the Netzarim settlement is often targeted by Palestinian militants. The militant Hamas group identified the two attackers as Tariq Temraz, 21, and Husam Hamad, 22, from the Jebaliya refugee camp.
Also Wednesday, Israeli troops entered the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip and found a tunnel used to smuggle weapons under the nearby border with Egypt, the army said.
Witnesses said several houses were destroyed. The army said Palestinian gunmen fired at them from nearby homes and troops responded with tank shells.
Israel had withdrawn from the Rafah area last week after finding three tunnels in a weeklong offensive there. Palestinians said 45 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire in the operation, which also left more than 40 houses demolished and several more severely damaged.
Israeli border police on Wednesday demolished a two-story building housing about 20 people in the West Bank town of Anata, saying the houses had been built without the proper permits. Israeli officials said they planned to demolish a total of four buildings Wednesday.
Sharon says his "disengagement plan" is intended to separate Israelis and Palestinians after nearly four years of violence. Sharon also hopes the plan will preserve large Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Palestinians welcome a Gaza pullout but insist it must be the beginning of a withdrawal from the West Bank as well.
Sharon said Tuesday he was grateful for Egypt's cooperation with the planned Gaza pullout. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has spoken in favor of Sharon's plan, pledged to help in the transition to Palestinian control and said Egypt would play a role in maintaining security.
Sharon told lawmakers he expected Jordan to agree to a similar arrangement over parts of the northern West Bank, legislators said.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher said Tuesday that Jordan would consider training Palestinian police forces but first Israel would have to respect a cease-fire with the Palestinians and continue efforts to implement the U.S.-backed peace plan.
"If this criteria is met, then obviously we are ready to do our part to make sure the peace process is resumed and progress is made on the ground," Muasher said.