Stunning announcement: Eight days before the pullout's official start date, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced during Sunday’s government session that he has decided to quit the government.
“Here is my (resignation) letter,” the finance minister told Prime Minister Sharon and placed a handwritten note on the government table.
“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,” Netanyahu wrote in his letter.
“What do we get in exchange for the withdrawal?” Bibi asks in his resignation notice. “What do we get in return for the uprooting of families and their children, homes, and graves? We’ll get an Islamic terror base. In recent months I hoped the government would open its eyes in the face of this clear reality and change course, but the opposite happened.”
“A balanced government reflecting the will of the people in the last elections has turned into a government that automatically executes a policy that contradicts Likud principals and the mandate we received from our voters,” Bibi wrote.
Following Netanyahu’s announcement, the government approved the first phase of the Gaza pullout by a 17-5 margin.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s associates said the disengagement would be executed despite Netanyahu’s resignation.
“Netanyahu fell captive in the hands of the Right, which threatened that if he doesn’t resign he would not receive their vote,” one source said. “The disengagement will be executed. Netanyahu’s actions are politically motivated, because he thought the disengagement would be followed by elections.”
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Bibi’s senior advisor, Yehiel Leiter, told Ynet: “The resignation comes as a result of the government vote (on evacuation,) and particularly after he (Netanyahu) completed all the reforms in the market and was able to vote according to conscience on the disengagement.”
Netanyahu has been under immense pressure by right-wingers to take a firmer stand against the disengagement plan, but resisted the calls until now.
The finance minister said he will explain the motives for his decision at a press conference Sunday evening.
During Sunday’s government session, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the cabinet he is not bothered by how individual ministers vote on the first phase of settlement evacuation.
“Some view themselves as military experts,” he said. “Let them vote as they see fit.”
Five Likud ministers, Benjamin Netanyahu, Danny Naveh, Yisrael Katz, Tsachi Hanegbi and Limor Livnat voted against settlement evacuation. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Sharon and six other Likud ministers voted to back the proposal, as would the eight Labor party ministers.
However, with Netanyahu's resignation, the political system is certain to plunge into turmoil.
Who will take his place?
Speculation over Netanyahu’s replacement began within minutes of the finance minister’s resignation announcement. The speculations are not new, as the possibility has been raised several times in recent months every time Netanyahu hinted he would quit.
At this stage it is too early to estimate who would become the next finance minister. Prime Minister Sharon may decide to assume the prestigious post himself, or hand it to his closest political ally at this time, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Meanwhile, Knesset Member Dalia Itzik called on Sharon to appoint Vice Premier Shimon Peres to the post.