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Netanyahu quits in protest of Israeli Gaza plan

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JERUSALEM — Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's leading figure opposed to the impending plan to evacuate Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and a small section of the West Bank, resigned Sunday, saying the policy will endanger the country.

Netanyahu's departure, the latest in a wave of resignations by right-wing ministers from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's coalition government, will not derail the evacuation of 25 settlements set to begin next week.

However, Netanyahu's dramatic resignation is expected to trigger a political showdown with Sharon that could lead to early elections in Israel and confound U.S. hopes that the withdrawal will further peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Netanyahu is a former prime minister with aspirations to reclaim the job.

After Netanyahu submitted his resignation letter, the Cabinet in a 17-5 vote gave its final approval Sunday to the first stage of the Gaza pullout — the dismantling of the isolated Netzarim, Kfar Darom and Morag, three of 21 Gaza settlements to be evacuated.

Public opinion polls show that the majority of Israelis support the withdrawal, which Sharon says will make Israel more secure. But a vocal minority of religious Jews and right-wing hard-liners are opposed to it, saying that it weakens Israel in its fight against Palestinian militants.

Netanyahu echoed these fears, telling reporters that Israel's complete withdrawal from Gaza, an arid, sandy spit of land along the Mediterranean Sea that is home to an estimated 1.3 million Palestinians, will speed the territory's transformation into a "base for Islamic terror."

"The moment of truth is here. I am not willing to collaborate with this process, which endangers the country's security," Netanyahu said in his official letter of resignation.

Since Cabinet approval for the withdrawal had been widely expected, Israeli political analysts interpreted Netanyahu's resignation as a long-planned political move of impeccable timing.

Anti-withdrawal activists are hoping that Netanyahu's sway over Likud parliamentarians, coupled with the votes of religious parties and other anti-withdrawal lawmakers, will give them enough support to cause Sharon's government to fall once the parliament returns from its summer recess in September. Under Israeli law, elections have to be held within three months if the parliament votes no confidence in the government. Election are not scheduled to be held until November 2006.

Netanyahu, 55, is Sharon's biggest political rival within the ruling Likud Party. Known by his childhood nickname Bibi, he won Israel's 1996 elections by appealing to religious and right-wing voters opposed to giving up land to the Palestinians in exchange for peace.

The resignation is expected to cement Netanyahu's appeal to these constituencies again and push him ahead of Sharon in the race to lead the party, which historically has been seen as a champion of settlements.

Religious settlers leaders, who have put enormous pressure on Likud ministers to resign from Sharon's government, praised Netanyahu for showing "national responsibility and leadership."

Isaac Herzog, Israel's housing minister and a Labor Party member, called Netanyahu's resignation a "very cynical step." He told CNN that Netanyahu's motivation was "clearly to challenge Sharon and Likud, to amass all of the right-wing followers in that camp before somebody else may take it away from him."

Sharon did not immediately comment on his rival's resignation, but re-affirmed his commitment to the withdrawal.

The Tel Aviv stock market dipped sharply on the news of Netanyahu's resignation, ending the day down about 5 percent. But analysts expected markets to rebound Monday after Sharon appointed Ehud Olmert, a deputy prime minister and former mayor of Jerusalem, as interim finance minister.