Israeli Cabinet Considers Withdrawal

Israel's Cabinet convened on Sunday to approve a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip (search) and the inclusion of two large Jewish settlements blocs on the Israeli side of the West Bank separation barrier — historic decisions likely to shape the nation's future borders.

Both issues were expected to win overwhelming approval.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza and four West Bank settlements this summer was expected to be approved by 17-5, sealing the political defeat of hardliners, including by members of his ruling Likud Party (search), who had tried to derail the withdrawal.

Opening the session, Sharon, a former settler patron, suggested he was deciding on the dismantling of Jewish settlements with a heavy heart. "It's not an easy day, it's not a happy day," he said.

Five Likud ministers were to vote against the withdrawal, led by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sharon's main political rival in the party. Netanyahu had pushed for a national referendum on the withdrawal to prevent what he said would be a painful rift in the nation.

"Because the vote will not include provision for a referendum, I shall vote according to my conscience, against the decision," he told Israel Radio.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom had also sought a referendum, but in the end said he would support the withdrawal. "I think we have to give peace a chance, even if its a slim chance. We owe it to our children, to our grandchildren, for a better future," he said.

In the Cabinet's second vote, ministers were to approve the final segment of the West Bank separation barrier, from Jerusalem to the south. Under the proposed route, the largest Jewish settlement, Maaleh Adumim, and the settlement bloc of Gush Etzion would be included on the Israeli side of the barrier.

Ministers were voting on a revised route that would run closer to Israel' s old boundary with the West Bank than the original one but still would include between 6 percent and 8 percent of West Bank land on the Israeli side, Vice Premier Shimon Peres said. The route was revised after the Supreme Court ruled the original route caused too much hardship to Palestinians.