Critic of Gaza Plan Resigns From Sharon's Cabinet

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 3, 2005

JERUSALEM, May 2 -- Israeli cabinet member Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident whose book on democracy has been praised enthusiastically by President Bush, resigned Monday in protest of Israel's planned removal of soldiers and Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip.

"In my view, the disengagement plan is a tragic mistake that will exacerbate the conflict with the Palestinians, increase terrorism and dim the prospects of forging a genuine peace," Sharansky, minister of Jerusalem and diaspora affairs, wrote in a resignation letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Sharansky, who spent a decade in prison in the Soviet Union and immigrated to Israel in 1986, has been an outspoken proponent of the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip throughout his political career here.

While Sharansky's resignation is unlikely to have a major impact on Sharon's plan to begin removing all 21 settlements in Gaza and four small settlements in the northern West Bank this summer, it is symptomatic of the opposition Sharon has faced from the most hawkish members of the government, including some in his own party, Likud.

Sharansky was the third cabinet member to quit over the disengagement plan. Sharon has fired three other ministers, and battles over the withdrawal have nearly collapsed his government on several occasions.

Opinion polls indicate that a majority of Israelis favor the withdrawal from Gaza. But the politically powerful and vocal minority -- which includes politicians and die-hard settlers -- continues to fight the move.

Some of Sharansky's political colleagues questioned the timing of and motives behind his resignation at the late stage in the plans for the disengagement, which Israel has said it expects to complete by the end of the summer.

"I relate this to all sorts of rumors about the success of his book in the U.S.," Roman Bronfman, a legislator and a member of the Russian immigrant party Sharansky helped create, told Israeli Army Radio in an interview. "I think he simply decided to end his political career and make money, and this is understandable and legitimate. What is unacceptable is to dress this up as some sort of ideological decision."

During his State of the Union address in February, Bush quoted Sharansky's book as a reflection of his own views on the importance of expanding democracy in the world. He praised Sharansky's "town square" test of democracy: Can a person walk to the town square and express personal views without fear of arrest or physical attack?

The book, "The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror," subsequently made it onto the bookshelves of many of Bush's top advisers and several U.S. bestseller lists. Neither the slim volume nor its author attained such celebrity status in Israel.

Sharon, who has outmaneuvered his political opponents in persuading the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, to approve and finance the disengagement plan, was gracious in his acceptance of Sharansky's resignation at Monday's cabinet meeting, which Sharansky did not attend.

"I would be very pleased if he would continue serving," Sharon said, according to a transcript released by his office, "and thank him and commend him for his work on the issues that fell within his responsibility."

Sharansky said in the resignation letter that he "was opposed to the disengagement plan from the outset, on the basis of my deep belief that every concession in the peace process made by the Israeli side must be accompanied by democratic reform on the Palestinian side."

Also on Monday, an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian militant were killed in an exchange of gunfire when Israeli soldiers and security service agents conducted a raid just before dawn on the outskirts of the village of Seideh, near the West Bank city of Tulkarm, according to an Israeli military spokesman.

The Israeli forces were attempting to arrest two members of the radical group Islamic Jihad who had escaped from a Palestinian jail about 10 days ago, the military spokesman said. He said the two were wanted in connection with a suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv nightclub on Feb. 25.

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