A rift over realignment surfaced at the top of Kadima Monday, as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledged allegiance to his plan despite the fighting in Gaza, while two of the party's ministers said recent events have rendered the plan unworkable.
"The chances right now of implementing realignment are very small. There are many reservations, including my own," Construction and Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit said Monday in his bluntest words to date against the plan. "I don't believe in another unilateral withdrawal. What is going on in Gaza reinforces the opposition to realignment."
Sheetrit said his position reflected that of former prime minister Ariel Sharon, who Sheetrit said was against another unilateral withdrawal. "Without peace I'm not prepared to give an inch," Sheetrit said.
And Sheetrit, who made similar comments to The Jerusalem Post last week, was not alone. Minister of Immigrant Absorption Ze'ev Boim, a close Olmert confidant, said that although he felt realignment was strategically the best plan to set Israel's permanent borders, the current security situation made the plan "irrelevant."
"The big question is whether it could be done when the cannons are firing. I don't know if it's possible. I'm sure it's not the right time," he said.
Boim's and Sheetrit's comments came soon after Olmert told a Jerusalem press conference for foreign journalists that he remained committed to the plan, although the situation in Gaza made matters more difficult.
Olmert, who had not talked publicly about realignment since Cpl. Gilad Shalit was abducted more than two weeks ago, said that neither Hamas's election nor the recent events in Gaza have changed his "basic commitment" to the realignment plan.
He said he realized that carrying out the plan would be difficult, but that he was "absolutely determined to carry on in order to ultimately separate from the Palestinians and establish the secure borders that will be recognized by the international community and at the same time that will allow Palestinians contiguous territory where they can have their own state."
Olmert described the plan as "basically a concept of gradually separating the Israelis from the Palestinians." He said that Israel wanted to separate "in a friendly manner" from the Palestinians, and that if a violent confrontation were thrust on Israel, both the Israelis and Palestinians would have to bear the consequences.
"But that won't stop the inevitable historical process of separation between Israel and the Palestinians. It is the only solution for the Palestinians, the only way the Palestinians can realize their dreams of a Palestine state, and the only way Israel will be able to establish secure borders," he said.
Olmert's associates downplayed Sheetrit's criticism, saying it was "a sign of a serious and healthy party" and that Olmert would survive internal dissent just as former prime minister Sharon did. But they charged that Sheetrit's criticism was connected to his intention to challenge Olmert for the Kadima leadership.
Sheetrit briefly considered challenging Olmert for the Kadima leadership after Sharon's stroke six months ago.
"We are sure that Sheetrit said what he did for ideological reasons only," an Olmert associate said cynically. "But we are also sure that Sheetrit will change his mind when he sees the plan and we are even more sure that Sheetrit will respect the future decisions of the government and faction discipline inside Kadima."
At the press conference Olmert also rejected the idea that the current events in Gaza show that disengagement was a failure. He said that the situation now was "much better" for Israel than it was before disengagement.
"Can you imagine how [much] more deadly the shooting of Kassam missiles would be if 17 settlements would be within 200-500 meters from Palestinian centers in Gaza?" he asked. "How many more causalities we would have had then, that if on top of the 9,000 to 10,000 Israelis that would have remained in the middle of Gaza, you would have had 10,000 - 15,000 soldiers in Gaza to protect these civilians." He said the lack of Jewish settlement inside has provided Israel with "a lot more flexibility than the situation before the disengagement."
Sheera Claire Frenkel and Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.