Ariel Sharon feared to fall a pray to withdrawal

Amid growing tensions on the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip the life of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is at stake.

Israeli President Moshe Katsav has warned Monday that right-wing nationalists could attempt to assassinate Ariel Sharon. Mr Katsav believes that the vocal opposition of pro-settler rabbis to Israel's Gaza pullout plan could incite extremists to take "dramatic measures," reports BBC.

But despite such fears the Israeli cabinet overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to delay the start of Ariel Sharon's Gaza withdrawal for three months. According to the AP, this has set the stage for a showdown between the prime minister and his main political rival, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Deputy Prime Minister and Labor Party Chairman Shimon Peres was also vehemently opposed. "You're just trying to cause a provocation and provide additional time for the rioters, not for the disengagement," Peres was quoted as saying by Haaretz daily, while he was trying to make his opponents change their mind. "You're humiliating the government and every one of us individually."

The attempt to force Sharon to postpone the withdrawal, which is scheduled to begin in mid-August, was a sharp reminder of the opposition he faces in his rightist Likud party to the plan he has championed and a sign of internal leadership battles ahead.

But despite the bitter cabinet debate, the tension between Sharon and Netanyahu - which had peaked following Netanyahu's announcement that he plans to skip Wednesday's Knesset vote on delaying the pullout - appeared to have moderated yesterday. That announcement initially prompted the prime minister's associates to declare that Sharon would fire Netanyahu if he did skip the vote, but officials in Sharon's bureau later insisted that those threats had been made without the premier's consent, reports Haaretz.

The cabinet voted 18 to 3 against Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz's proposed three-month delay.

Sharon was among 18 ministers who voted against the delay on Sunday, while Netanyahu, the finance minister, was one of three who voted in favor.

Fears that ultranationalist opponents of the Gaza move might attack Israeli leaders also surfaced at the prime minister's office, where the Shin Bet security service fitted cabinet members for new bulletproof vests before they convened.

The bulky Sharon, notices the AP, who has quipped that no bulletproof vest fits him, was also issued body armor, an Israeli source told the AP, adding that threats on his life were likely to increase as the withdrawal grows nearer.

On Friday, Israely army "rehearsed" the withdrawal while removing Jewish extremists occupying a hotel in a Gaza settlement.

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