Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Thursday presented several cabinet ministers with a draft of his revised plan for Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip but failed to persuade key members of his party to back the proposal.
The new plan calls for a withdrawal from Gaza and a handful of Jewish settlements in the West Bank in four stages, but only the first stage would be presented for a cabinet vote on Sunday, according to accounts that first appeared in the Israeli news media and were confirmed Thursday night by a government official. Each of the following stages would be approved separately.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plan had not been formally presented to the cabinet, said the first phase would involve evacuating three of the smallest settlements in Gaza: Netzarim, Morag and Rafah Yam. Only if the first phase proved successful, said the official, would Sharon go on to the later segments. The official gave no projected dates for the other phases.
The new plan was designed to meet objections from members of Sharon's Likud Party, who defeated his original proposal in a referendum earlier this month, with 60 percent voting no. But it still ran into immediate opposition from several cabinet members, including Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister who is Sharon's main rival within Likud.
Though Netanyahu issued no public comment after meeting with Sharon on Thursday, knowledgeable officials said he believed the new proposal did not differ enough from the earlier one.
Deputy Prime Minister Yosef Lapid, head of the centrist Shinui party, told reporters after meeting with Sharon that he and his colleagues would wait until Sunday's cabinet meeting to decide whether to support the new plan.
Even with support from Shinui and from Likud allies in the cabinet, Sharon appears to be at least one vote short of the 12 needed for a majority in the 23-member cabinet.
The original plan had the strong endorsement of President Bush, who said it could be a first step in reviving the Middle East peace process. Officials said the United States has not been formally presented with the revised proposal.
Opinion polls indicate that unilateral withdrawal has widespread support among the Israeli public, which sees no purpose in remaining in a territory that is home to more than a million Palestinians but only 7,500 Jewish settlers. But withdrawal is opposed by the influential settler movement, which argues that it would be seen as a victory by Palestinian militants.
The new plan, besides dividing the withdrawal into phases, calls for houses in evacuated settlements to be demolished. This provision is designed to satisfy the objections of Israelis who say it would be morally repugnant for militants responsible for the killing of settlers to have access to their homes after a pullout.
A third element that officials say is not laid out in writing but that they consider significant is a conditional commitment from Egypt to help maintain security in Gaza after a pullout. Omar Suleiman, a senior Egyptian security official who has sought to broker truce arrangements between Israel and the Palestinians over the past two years, met separately with Sharon and Palestinian leaders on Monday to discuss the new proposal.
"We have expressed very clearly our intention and our interest in supporting a withdrawal from Gaza," said a knowledgeable Egyptian in a telephone interview. He said a draft Egyptian proposal included sending security consultants to Gaza to advise the Palestinians, increasing patrols and intelligence along Egypt's border with Gaza to prevent weapons smuggling, and assisting Palestinian factions to negotiate agreements among themselves. But he said Egyptian involvement ultimately would depend on the final contours of the Israeli plan.
Defense analyst Yosef Alpher said each aspect of Sharon's new proposal appeared designed to overcome Likud reservations.
"By turning it into four phases and making each dependent on the previous phase, he's trying to deal with the criticism that he's giving up something for nothing," Alpher said. "Basically he's giving up the three most problematic settlements to start with and saying we'll see if we get some positive response from the Palestinians before moving on to phase two."
But critics at both ends of the political spectrum quickly rejected the proposal. "It's not territory for peace, it's territory for terror," said Yuri Shtern, a deputy minister from National Unity, a party dominated by Russian immigrants that has strongly condemned the new plan.
At the same time, the Peace Now citizens movement characterized the new plan as a surrender to the extreme right against the will of the majority. "To judge by the prime minister's conduct, it is possible that by Sunday's cabinet meeting the disengagement plan will include the evacuation of two flowerpots and a window box," the group said in a statement.
Correspondent Robin Shulman and researcher Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.