Some Israelis refer to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as the godfather of the settlement movement. The former general built his career advocating that Israel's security hinged on settlements, and strengthened his political base by standing by Israelis who have moved into traditional Arab territory.
So it was a bombshell on Feb. 2 when he announced a plan to evacuate Jewish residents from 17 settlements in the Gaza Strip. Mr. Sharon said he had ordered plans drawn up to remove the enclaves, where 7,500 settlers occupy one-fifth of Gaza amidst more than 1.3 million Palestinians.
"I am working on the assumption that in the future there will be no Jews in Gaza," Mr. Sharon said in an interview with Yoel Marcus, a leading columnist for Israel's daily newspaper Haaretz.
The announcement stunned friends and foes alike. It marked the first time Mr. Sharon had broached the subject of an extensive pullout from land occupied by Israel since the 1967 war. It marked a political watershed for Mr. Sharon, who was a commander in the war and served as military governor of Gaza after its conquest.
Mr. Sharon said the plan could take one to two years to carry out, a statement critics say means he is not serious about it. But the prime minister insisted it is "not a simple matter." Relocation means moving not only residents who have lived in some settlements 30 years, but also factories, packing plants, and hothouses.
In December Mr. Sharon hinted that he would proceed with unilateral steps toward peace in Israel, including "relocation," if the U.S.-prepared roadmap failed. He said he would present the plan to President Bush during a visit to Washington later this month. He is likely also to ask the United States for money to assist in carrying it out.
But first Mr. Sharon must hold on to power. The day after his bombshell, he survived a confidence vote in parliament by a single vote. His Likud Party maintains parliamentary control only through a coalition, and it is likely to need reconstituting before relocation goes through. Leaders of the pro-settlement National Religious Party say they "will immediately leave the government" if Mr. Sharon takes his plan to Washington.
Even Mr. Sharon's own Likud colleagues were caught by surprise. "I'm in shock," said Yehiel Hazan, a Likud lawmaker and a lobbyist for the settlers. "This is something that for years he himself said couldn't happen." Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said unilateral steps won't reduce the conflict with Palestinians and are likely to increase violence.
But Mr. Sharon apparently is banking on reforming his government at some point with a new spectrum of political allies who are worn out by three years of Palestinian intifada and counterattacks by Israeli Defense Forces. Most Israelis want an end to the conflict, not only because of growing security worries but also because it has devastated Israel's economy. Proponents agree with Mr. Sharon that Jewish settlers will have to pull out of some areas eventually if further negotiations with Palestinians are to proceed. And the Gaza settlers, more politically and religiously homogenous than settlers in the Golan Heights, are likely in the end to cooperate.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia called Mr. Sharon's initiative "good news." He told Voice of Palestine radio, "We hope that Israel will withdraw from all Palestinian areas" and called for "deeds, not words."
His patron, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, was customarily derisive. "Seventeen trailers?" he asked. "What, so they can replace them with another 170?"