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Blasts Sharon\'s \'Blind\' Devotion to Gaza Pullout

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Making a renewed bid for national leadership, Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (right) resigned from the Israeli government on Sunday, citing his fervent objections to the unilateral disengagement plan from Gaza set to be implemented next week. 

Just minutes before the cabinet voted (16 to 5) to give final approval for the first set of settlement evacuations starting next Monday, Netanyahu surprised fellow ministers by handing in a resignation letter and promptly exiting the room.

In a press conference two hours later, an animated Netanyahu explained that he had reluctantly stayed inside the government over the past year for the sake of his economic reform programs, but the country's current financial standing now allowed him to depart over disengagement and its grave security implications.

"The disengagement is going ahead blindly," Netanyahu charged. "Like in Oslo, the warning signs are being ignored. I understand the intentions here - who doesn't want peace? But here in the Middle East this is not the way to attain peace - it has failed before and it will fail again."

"At moments of truth a leader must ask himself what he stands for and what he is working toward," said Netanyahu, adding that he felt he could no longer be a part of Sharon's plan.

"Hamas is just getting stronger. They are being credited with our withdrawal," Netanyahu said. "Now we're going to leave the Philadelphi route [along the Gaza-Egypt border], and we are letting the Palestinians build a sea port in Gaza. They will be free to import weapons that will put Ashdod and Ashkelon within firing range."
In his three-page resignation letter, Netanyahu wrote: "It's becoming clear that the unilateral withdrawal under fire is not giving us a thing. The opposite is true, it undermines the security of Israel, splits the nation, entrenches the principle of withdrawal to the 1967 borders, which are not defensible, and is not the way to achieve peace."

The abrupt move shocked Israel's finance markets, as well as the political echelons. In response, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon quickly appointed Vice Premier Ehud Olmert (left) - Netanyahu's chief Likud rival to succeed Sharon - as interim finance minister, while the PM's Office assured reporters that the resignation will not affect the government's economic policy nor the Gaza pullout.

Allies and opponents alike welcomed Netanyahu's resignation, with leftist politicians claiming it showed his true place was with "the extremist right" and that it would finally end his "criminal acts" against the poor. On the right, disengagement opponents were heartened by the move, but deemed it as likely "too late" to stop the Gaza withdrawal.

For months, the Likud faction has been essentially split into three blocs: one-third of its MKs solidly backed Sharon and disengagement, one-third were staunch opponents, and one-third constituted a key swing bloc, which now has to decide whether to follow Netanyahu. Four like-minded Likud cabinet ministers are not expected to resign anytime soon, but political analysts say Netanyahu's departure means the ruling party and the nation are headed for new elections soon after disengagement.


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