JERUSALEM – Israeli Cabinet ministers failed to decide Tuesday whether to delay this summer's planned Gaza Strip (search) withdrawal — a move that would buy the government time to put its chaotic plans in order, but that also cast doubt on its resolve to carry out the pullout.
In another reversal, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) indicated during the session that he opposes the delay — just a day after signaling he favored it.
The stormy meeting broke up without a decision on a proposal to postpone the withdrawal from July 25 to Aug. 15, but the ministers agreed to discuss the issue further after the army makes its recommendations in the coming days, ministers said.
Officially, the delay has been proposed out of respect for Orthodox Jews who observe a three-week mourning period for the destruction of the biblical Jewish Temples. Many of the 9,000 settlers who are slated to leave Gaza and four northern West Bank (search) settlements observe Jewish rituals.
But some Cabinet ministers suggested the delay would be needed to give the government time to iron out the many snags in the withdrawal preparations.
After fighting the plan for months, settlers have only recently started negotiating with the government over compensation for their losses, and committees have only been set up in the past few days to decide on the many complex issues involved in the evacuation, such as finding housing for uprooted residents.
Critics said a postponement would scuttle the evacuation and serve the purposes of pullout opponents. Opinion polls say the Israeli public overwhelmingly supports the plan, but it is fiercely opposed by the powerful settlers' movement and some prominent right-wing politicians.
"It is very difficult to carry out the disengagement when there is no cooperation from the settlers. They haven't provided answers. ... In order for it to be organized, there has to be dialogue," Vice Premier Shimon Peres (search) said after the meeting.
Peres said ministers would decide soon whether to delay the evacuation.
Officials in the meeting said Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has signaled he does not support changing the timeline. Army officials have said any changes would disrupt their preparations and give opponents more time to plan their resistance.
However, during a visit to Gaza Strip settlements, Mofaz indicated he would be sympathetic. Accepting the request for the three-week delay "could make things easier. I believe that anything that can make it easier should be done," he said.
Mofaz also said he would meet with Palestinian officials this week to begin discussing coordination of the pullout.
In an abrupt turnabout Monday, Sharon — who had steadfastly objected to withdrawal opponents' demand for a national referendum on the withdrawal, calling it a stalling tactic — said he was "favorably disposed" toward a delay.
But a statement from Sharon's office later Tuesday said he remains committed to the original timetable.
The Yediot Ahronot newspaper on Tuesday quoted an unidentified top official involved in withdrawal preparations as saying that with the exception of the security forces, planning was in a state of anarchy.
There are still fierce debates within the Cabinet over where settlers will be relocated. With just three months to go, construction of infrastructure and temporary housing hasn't begun. New jobs for uprooted settlers haven't been found, and the government is still negotiating how much compensation to give.
"The delay only proves the government was not really ready," said Yitzhak Elia, deputy mayor of the Gush Katif (search) bloc of settlements, who opposes the plan.
Haim Altman, a spokesman for the administration overseeing compensation and relocation, said his agency is prepared for the pullout, though he acknowledged a delay would benefit some people. "There are some people for whom this delay would be convenient, say, to find temporary housing," he said.
But Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz of Peres' dovish Labor Party said those proposing a delay are simply trying to torpedo the withdrawal.
"Any delay would broadcast weakness. Any delay would broadcast vacillation," Pines-Paz said.
Government officials said they were long aware of the midsummer mourning period, but that they took into consideration other factors — such allowing families to move before the start of the school year on Sept. 1 — in their planning. If the withdrawal starts in August, it will not be completed by the beginning of September.
Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz, an opponent of the withdrawal who participated in Tuesday's meeting, told Israel Army Radio that he favors postponing the evacuation even further, until after a month of Jewish holidays ending in late October. "It is clear that nothing is ready, nothing is prepared," he said.
Meanwhile, Mofaz — surrounded by heavy security — toured several Gaza settlements Tuesday, saying he had come to listen to people's concerns and show understanding for the difficult changes they face.
But hecklers ruined his visit to the largest settlement, Neve Dekalim. About 100 people surrounded him, demanding his resignation. "We won't leave alive," shouted one of the settlers.
When residents failed to turn up for a scheduled meeting with Mofaz, it was canceled.
"The defense minister's job is to protect Jews, not to throw them out," said Shabtai Namburg, a 52-year-old resident. "Those who invited him to Neve Dekalim should be ashamed."
Mofaz said he wasn't surprised. "I didn't expect a supportive reception," he said.