Israeli finance minister quits over Gaza move
Cabinet gives final approval to first stage of pullout

Updated: 10:09 a.m. ET Aug. 7, 2005

JERUSALEM - Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resigned from his post Sunday to protest next week’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank, a ministry spokesman said.

Netanyahu, seen as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s biggest political rival within the Likud Party, submitted a letter of resignation during the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, said the Finance Ministry spokesman, Eli Yosef. The resignation will take effect within 48 hours.

After Netanyahu submitted his resignation, the Cabinet gave its final approval to the first stage of the Gaza pullout — the dismantling of the isolated Netzarim, Kfar Darom and Morag settlements. The vote was 17-5.

Israel plans to begin removing some 9,000 settlers from their homes, starting in days. All 21 Israeli settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank are marked for dismantling.

Netanyahu, a former prime minister and political hard-liner, has long been conflicted over the Gaza withdrawal. He has voted in favor of the pullout in the Cabinet but also tried to torpedo the plan in parliamentary maneuvers.

Netanyahu is expected to challenge Sharon for party leadership ahead of the next election.

The Tel Aviv stock Exchange’s Maof index dropped nearly 3 percent within minutes after the resignation was announced. Netanyahu led efforts to streamline the Israeli economy, often adopting harsh measures to implement his austerity plan.

Sunday’s Cabinet vote was the first in a series to approve the dismantling of specific settlements.

“It is a difficult, complex but very important process for Israel, but will be implemented as the Cabinet and the Knesset decided,” Sharon said of the withdrawal.

Opponents of the pullout, scheduled to begin Aug. 15, have been trying to torpedo the plan, holding mass protests, smuggling sympathizers into the condemned settlements and calling on soldiers to disobey orders to evacuate the settlements.

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