ISRAEL Against pullout, finance official abruptly quits
Prime Minister Sharon named Vice Premier Ehud Olmert acting finance minister.
LOS ANGELES TIMES
JERUSALEM -- Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday abruptly announced he was quitting the government to protest the planned Gaza withdrawal, as the Cabinet gave final approval to evacuating three isolated Jewish settlements that are among the most ideologically fervent.
Netanyahu, who is Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's leading challenger for leadership of the conservative Likud Party, voted in favor of the pullout during earlier Cabinet decisions, but his maneuvers often appeared aimed at undermining it. He grew more openly defiant as the Aug. 17 deadline approached.
Netanyahu, a former prime minister, says leaving Gaza would reward terrorism by making it appear Israel fled from Palestinian militants who have carried out dozens of attacks on settlers and soldiers there during more than four years of conflict. He announced his decision during the Cabinet session.
"I cannot stop [the pullout], but I can be at peace with myself," Netanyahu said during a televised news conference. "I cannot be a party to a move that I believe will endanger the security and will divide the people."
His decision to bolt just days before the withdrawal deadline, after spearheading an aggressive program of economic reforms to streamline government services and cut spending, was seen as a carefully timed play for the Likud's right wing, which has backed settlers in trying to derail the Sharon pullout plan.
Netanyahu's resignation has no immediate effect on the pullout or on the stability of the Sharon government. But it could open a convulsive period within Likud, and perhaps augur a split in Israel's dominant political party.
"Netanyahu positioned himself in the middle of the right wing. If he wants to be considered as the leader of the right, this is the right timing for him," said Gideon Doron, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University.
With national elections scheduled for November 2006, Netanyahu has made no secret of his intention to challenge Sharon. Sharon for months has been irked by the finance minister's moves, such as the failed attempt to submit the pullout to a referendum. But Sharon backed Netanyahu's budgetary belt-tightening.
Sharon's camp viewed the resignation, which takes effect in 48 hours, as having more to do with electoral jousting than with the pullout.
"One thing is clear: disengagement will go through according to plan and on schedule," said Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin.
Sharon named a close ally, Vice Premier Ehud Olmert, acting finance minister to continue the economic reforms.