Finance Minister Netanyahu quitted after protesting Gaza withdrawal

Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the highest-ranking figures in Israel's government, quit Sunday to protest next week's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and, sometime afterward, from parts of the West Bank, saying it would create an "Islamic base" on Israel's doorstep.

Moments after Mr. Netanyahu made his announcement, his former cabinet colleagues pushed ahead and authorized plans for the first phase of the withdrawal plan, naming the isolated Gaza settlements of Morag, Netzarim and Kfar Darom as the first three that will be evacuated after the Aug. 15 deadline for settlers to leave of their own accord.

Netanyahu tendered his resignation toward the end of a dramatic meeting of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Cabinet in which ministers, by a vote of 17 to 5, gave troops the green light to begin on Aug. 17 dismantling three of the 25 settlements slated for evacuation. Further evacuations will also be preceded by Cabinet voting.

By resigning, Mr. Netanyahu gave a flicker of hope to settler groups who have been praying the government will lose its resolve and drop its plans to close all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza, which Israel has occupied since 1967. The settlements are home to some 8,500 settlers, who live in affluent, heavily fortified enclaves amidst an estimated 1.3 million Palestinians, many of whom live in squalid refugee camps. Four settlements in the northern West Bank are also to be evacuated as part of the plan, Globe and Mail informs.

Settler leaders have been hoping for months that Mr. Netanyahu would quit the government and lead the anti-pullout movement. Eran Sternberg, a spokesman for the Gaza settlers, praised Mr. Netanyahu's decision Sunday.

Mr. Netanyahu told an audience that he would remain in government until the end of its term in November 2006.

The move will put pressure on other anti-pullout cabinet ministers to follow his example.

But he said the resignation came "far too late" to stop the process.

During the news conference, Netanyahu claimed he put off his resignation until Sunday to complete what he called ''historic reforms" in the economy. But analysts said his timing had more to do with party politics.

The 55-year-old Netanyahu is expected to compete against Sharon, 77, for leadership of Likud before the next election, which is scheduled for late next year but could be held sooner.

Mr. Netanyahu served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999 and lost the Likud leadership to Mr. Sharon in 2002, Globe and Mail reminds.

Labour is also planning a leadership convention this fall, which could pit Vice-Premier Shimon Peres against another former prime minister, Ehud Barak.

During his time as finance minister, Mr. Netanyahu cut taxes and government spending, moves that made him popular with big business but that drew criticism from others for increasing the gap between rich and poor.

Israeli stocks slid after the resignation announcement yesterday, and Mr. Sharon moved to calm markets by quickly appointing a key ally, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, as acting finance minister.

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