A bitter debate erupted Sunday between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his main political rival, Binyamin Netanyahu, over a U.S.-backed plan to withdraw Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip that Sharon presented to his deeply divided cabinet.
Sharon accused Netanyahu at Sunday's cabinet meeting of putting personal ambition above state security, and he warned that cabinet ministers would provoke a diplomatic confrontation with the Bush administration if they rejected the proposal, which calls for Israel to withdraw soldiers and Jewish settlers from all of Gaza and from four West Bank settlements. The prime minister also threatened to oust enough rebellious ministers to pass the plan, according to an approved transcript of the meeting read to reporters afterward.
Netanyahu, a former prime minister who is now finance minister, replied that by going forward with the proposal Sharon would be breaking his pledge to honor the decision by his Likud Party, whose members rejected the plan in a referendum earlier this month. Netanyahu proposed withdrawing from only three of Gaza's 21 settlements.
Sharon averted a governmental crisis by adjourning the seven-hour session without a vote on the plan, which appears one vote shy of winning majority approval in the 23-member body. Sharon's supporters said he would continue to press for cabinet approval at next Sunday's session, while Netanyahu's camp said he would consider a compromise proposal from Deputy Prime Minister Yosef Lapid of the centrist Shinui party.
The adjournment brought a temporary truce after a day packed with an unusual amount of drama, anger and personal confrontation, even by Israel's volatile standards. Two longtime opponents -- Sharon, 76, who may be nearing the end of a long political career, and the 54-year-old Netanyahu, who hopes to succeed him -- sparred with each other for the title of champion of Israel's security interests.
Sharon had set the stage last week when he presented to various cabinet members, including Netanyahu, his unilateral withdrawal proposal, which calls for a four-phase disengagement from Gaza that would conclude by the end of 2005. He argues that Israel has no purpose in maintaining 7,500 settlers in small enclaves among 1.3 million Palestinians and no one to effectively negotiate terms for its departure. Polls here indicate that the plan, which received President Bush's personal endorsement when Sharon journeyed to Washington last month, has the support of between 60 percent and 70 percent of the Israeli public.
But it is opposed by the influential settlers' movement and by those who argue that pulling out of the region without first exacting Palestinian concessions would increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks on Israel from the area.
Sharon opened Sunday's session by warning certain ministers, who were not publicly identified, against "exploiting the crisis in order to achieve personal gains." And he warned anyone planning to vote against him on the plan that he was prepared to take "unprecedented political steps," including firing ministers or widening his ruling coalition to include other parties, to get it through Israel's parliament.
Netanyahu angrily denied he was acting out of personal interest, saying that "nobody in this room has a monopoly over the good of the state." And he told Sharon: "You committed yourself to accepting the referendum results and you cannot go back on your word."
Sharon retorted: "I am very touched to hear the finance minister talking about democracy, after 10 years ago he voted against the party's position in favor of directly electing the prime minister." Sharon added that the Likud referendum results were not binding on the cabinet. "We are the government of the entire nation and must act according to what the majority wants," he said.
Sharon also argued that a rejection of the agreement would damage Israel's warm relationship with the Bush administration.
Sharon's supporters in recent days have asserted that Bush administration officials and leaders of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, have warned against rejection. Netanyahu responded that he had spoken directly with U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, who had told him the vote on the plan would have no impact on relations with the United States.
Natan Sharansky, a cabinet minister opposed to Sharon's plan, said he told those attending the meeting that Israel should make its own decision, noting that it would be in neither country's interest if withdrawal from Gaza led to increased terrorism.
A U.S. official confirmed that Kurtzer had met separately last week with both Sharon and Netanyahu. The official said Kurtzer had reaffirmed U.S. support for the disengagement proposal but had taken no stand on the political maneuverings surrounding it. An AIPAC spokesman said the group would not comment on "private discussions" with the prime minister's office.
After the heated beginning, Sharansky said, the cabinet meeting settled into a more businesslike atmosphere. "It became clear there is definitely some desire to find a compromise on both sides, and that's what I think will happen," he said. Deputy Prime Minister Lapid told Israel radio that he proposed a compromise that would endorse the first phase of withdrawal from three settlements while "noting" the remainder of the proposal.
For now Sharon and Netanyahu appear stalemated, analysts said. If Sharon carries out his threat to dismiss recalcitrant ministers, he could trigger a walkout that would bring down his government. Netanyahu might have enough support in the 120-member Knesset, or parliament, to form a new government. But he would be in charge of a narrow right-of-center coalition based upon opposition to a plan that has widespread popular support.
"My feeling is the only chance for a plan to pass is if it is accepted jointly by both men because neither one can totally defeat the other guy," said a veteran Likud activist with ties to each leader's camp.