JERUSALEM – Israel’s parliament on Wednesday approved a plan to post Egyptian troops on the Gaza border, setting the stage for an Israeli military pullout from the sensitive coastal frontier it has held for 38 years.
But the stormy debate over giving up control to a former enemy and the possibility of Palestinian arms smuggling added fuel to the rivalry between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu.
The parliamentary vote was not close – 53 to 28. It came as Netanyahu opened a campaign to unseat Sharon as leader of the ruling Likud Party.
The challenge was based on opposition to the pullout among registered Likud members. While the evacuation of all 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank had widespread public support, many ideologues in the traditionally pro-settlement party were opposed. They control party institutions, giving Netanyahu a solid chance to oust Sharon from the helm.
The split in Israel’s largest party has called into question whether Sharon’s government can live out its term until November 2006 and move ahead on peacemaking with the Palestinians after the Gaza pullout. Israel is expected to turn over control of Gaza to the Palestinians in mid-September.
Opening his campaign, Netanyahu visited one of the most contentious areas in a trilateral dispute involving Israel, the Palestinians and the United States – the three-mile corridor between Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim, Israel’s largest West Bank settlement.
Netanyahu criticized Sharon for freezing a government plan to construct 3,650 homes in the area to block a Palestinian hold there and on nearby east Jerusalem.
“He has created a precedent that will lead to the division of Jerusalem,” Netanyahu told reporters during the tour.
Sharon said this week that more West Bank settlements would be dismantled under a final peace agreement with the Palestinians. But he hopes to keep Israeli control over Maaleh Adumim and at least two other settlement blocs, where most of the West Bank’s 246,000 settlers live.
During the parliamentary debate on the agreement with Egypt, Netanyahu displayed his basic distrust of both the Palestinians and the Egyptians, insisting on Israeli control of the Egypt-Gaza border, as well as the Gaza seacoast and air space.
“It is important that we keep the Philadelphi road in our hands,” he said, referring to the border access route, “and certainly not give a port or airport to the Islamic terror base which is going to arise in Gaza.”
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