JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) said Monday he favors a three-week delay in Israel's planned pullout from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements this summer, ostensibly because of a Jewish mourning period marking the destruction of the biblical temples.
A postponement could give the ill-prepared government more room to plan for the withdrawal, but would also give Jewish extremists more time to organize resistance.
"I'm positively inclined toward this. We simply have to make it as easy as possible," Sharon told reporters during a train ride Monday. Israel TV — without citing any sources — said Sharon had decided to delay the pullout; Sharon made no announcement on Monday.
Israel, meanwhile, announced plans to build 50 more homes in a West Bank settlement — a week after President Bush said such construction should stop.
The White House was critical. "Israel should not be expanding settlements and the Palestinian leaders need to act to dismantle terrorist organizations," spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Yonatan Bassi (search), head of the administration handling evacuation of the settlers, suggested at a Sunday Cabinet meeting that the beginning of the pullout from Palestinian territories be put off from late July to mid-August. He noted the three-week mourning period many Jews observe before the day that marks the destruction of the biblical temples — Tisha B'Av, which falls this year on Aug. 14.
Bassi, an observant Jew, raised the issue after "an internal struggle and talking to rabbis," said his spokesman, Haim Altman.
Sharon said he would put the proposed delay to a vote at a Tuesday meeting of a Cabinet committee appointed to oversee the withdrawal.
Sharon aide Asaf Shariv said the government had originally hoped to complete the withdrawal by Sept. 1 — in time for settlers' children to start the education year in new schools.
In the 20 days before Tisha B'Av, observant Jews don't shave, cut their hair, listen to music or get married, but work is permitted. Jewish law does not specifically prohibit moving houses during the mourning period, but some say that would violate the spirit of the three-week observance.
A senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, noted Tisha B'Av (search) is associated with many tragedies and expulsions in Jewish history and said there were concerns about adding the Gaza evacuation to the list.
Responding to reports that the government was not prepared for the pullout, the official said the evacuation could go forward as originally planned, but additional time would be helpful.
The government has yet to build even temporary housing for the 8,500 settlers to be moved and has just begun examining permanent housing sites.
Sharon previously had opposed any delay in the pullout.
Vice Premier Shimon Peres, leader of the dovish Labor Party, Sharon's main coalition partner, wondered about the timing of his change.
"I'm surprised that it came at the last minute," he told Israel Radio by telephone from Paris. "We knew all of these events beforehand."
Military officials involved in preparations for the operation said they opposed any change in the timeline.
Tens of thousands of settler supporters are expected to flood the Gaza settlements next week for the Jewish Passover holiday, and many are expected to remain to resist the evacuation. A delay would give them more time to prepare.
Security officials have warned that extremists could even shoot at police and soldiers, but settler leaders insist they will use only nonviolent resistance.
In the West Bank, meanwhile, Israel pressed ahead with settlement construction despite criticism that such activity violates the internationally backed "road map" and seriously damages prospects for renewed peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
Yaakov Harel, spokesman for the Israel Lands Authority (search), said Monday that the agency was seeking bids for construction of 50 new homes in Elkana, near the Israel-West Bank line.
McClellan, the White House spokesman, said the United States would seek clarifications, noting that Sharon just reaffirmed his backing for the road map.
Bush has indicated the United States would support Israeli control over large settlements in a final peace settlement. But during a meeting with Sharon in Texas last week, he demanded no new construction in the settlements.
Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official, said the Elkana plan would undermine efforts to work out a peace accord based on Israelis and Palestinians having their own states.
"We urge the American administration that while they focus on the Gaza disengagement they should not close their eyes to units being added in the hundreds in the West Bank," he said.