move destined to widen the already deep split in Israeli society ahead of a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip set to begin next week, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quit the Israeli government yesterday, saying the pullout will strengthen Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas and make Gaza a "base of Islamic terror."
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.
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.
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 yesterday.
But he said the resignation came "far too late" to stop the process.
Mr. Sharon has repeatedly vowed to press ahead with the plan, which he says is vital to ensuring Israel's long-term security. The pullout plan passed cabinet by a 17-5 vote yesterday.
When his turn came to vote, Mr. Netanyahu said he should be counted as a "no," then stood up, handed Mr. Sharon his resignation letter, and walked out of the meeting.
"I am not prepared to be a partner to a move which ignores reality, and proceeds blindly toward turning [the Gaza Strip] into a base for Islamic terrorism which will threaten the state," the letter says, according to Israel Radio, which said it obtained a copy.
Those who witnessed the scene later told reporters that while some cabinet colleagues demanded that Mr. Netanyahu explain his actions, Mr. Sharon received the letter with no reaction. Afterward, Mr. Sharon said the disengagement would go ahead, and that he was "not concerned over those who vote against."
In a press conference, Mr. Netanyahu said that while he didn't expect his resignation would halt the Gaza withdrawal, his conscience would not allow him to remain in a government that was going against the classic principles of the Likud party.
"This is not the government I joined, it is a different government which is going against Likud's principles and against the mandate from its electorate. But, nothing can stop the process," he said. "It is moving ahead blindly, completely ignoring reality and all the warnings."
He also complained that the Gaza withdrawal would raise expectations that Israel would eventually withdraw completely to its pre-1967 borders.
Though Mr. Netanyahu had long been a vocal critic of the plan to leave Gaza, his sudden resignation caught many off guard. Less than a month ago,
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.
It is also seen as setting the stage for a long-anticipated showdown between the 55-year-old Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Sharon, 77, for the leadership of the Likud party and Israel's broader political right.
Mr. Netanyahu, himself a former prime minister, had threatened for months to resign, and the timing of his long-delayed announcement seems calculated to put himself forward as an alternative should Mr. Sharon's "disengagement" plan crumble into Jew versus Jew violence as some fear.
In May, another high-profile member of the government, Minister for Diaspora Affairs and Jerusalem Natan Sharansky, also quit over the Gaza plan.
There was speculation yesterday about Mr. Netanyahu's ability to force a Likud leadership vote before November 2006.
Israel's Haaretz newspaper dubbed the resignation announcement "the classic campaign launch from the classic campaigner."
National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a member of the left-wing Labour Party, which joined Mr. Sharon's government to ensure the Gaza plan went ahead, also saw political motives behind the move and accused the former prime minister of "choosing personal interest over the national interest."
Mr. Netanyahu served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999 and lost the Likud leadership to Mr. Sharon in 2002.
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.