JERUSALEM – Ending months of angry opposition, several Jewish settler leaders agreed Monday to sit down with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to discuss Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
The meeting, set for today, was the latest sign that some settlers have come to terms with their failure to scuttle the plan and are preparing for life after the pullout this summer. Agreement by a majority of settlers to cut a deal would reduce the threat of confrontations.
Settlers are demanding higher compensation from the government for giving up their homes. And some leaders, who are urging followers to refrain from violence, say they want to move their tight-knit communities as a group to Israel.
Zevulun Orlev, a pro-settler lawmaker who helped organize today’s meeting, said the participants would outline settlers’ concerns for Sharon. “We want the meeting to be the start of a dialogue between the prime minister and the settlers,” he said.
While Orlev said he still bitterly opposed the withdrawal, he reluctantly acknowledged its inevitability. “We have to understand that we have to prepare for the possibility of the day after,” he said.
The meeting follows a bruising but failed struggle in parliament to defeat Sharon’s plan for uprooting all 21 settlements in Gaza and four small settlements in the West Bank.
Sharon says removal of these communities, which are home to 9,000 people, will improve Israel’s security and help consolidate control over larger West Bank settlements.
Sharon reportedly told a parliamentary committee Monday that Israel should press forward with plans to connect the largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank to Jerusalem despite strong U.S. and Palestinian objections.
“This program has been in existence for 10 years. We should definitely move ahead with it,” Sharon was quoted as saying by a meeting participant.
Palestinian officials condemned Sharon’s comments. The Palestinians say that project will prevent them from setting up a viable independent state with east Jerusalem as their capital.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, in a bid to reform his corrupt security forces and rein in militants who have taken control of many West Bank towns, will force about 1,000 Palestinian security officials into early retirement.
Since announcing his Gaza plan last year, Sharon has repeatedly outflanked opponents, overcoming divisions within his own party to win parliamentary approval. Last week, he cleared the final obstacle by winning approval for his 2005 budget. A failure to pass the spending plan would have caused the government to collapse and forced elections for a new parliament.