JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will decide by week's end whether to delay Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, officials said yesterday, after a stormy meeting of government ministers ended without a decision.
The debate drew new attention to the many snags in preparations for the pullout, which is set to begin in late July. Critics warned that any delay would raise doubts about the government's resolve to carry out the operation.
For months, Sharon has steadfastly rejected any attempts to halt or delay his plan. But in a sudden turnabout Monday, he said he was ''favorably disposed" toward a delay of three weeks to allow uprooted settlers to observe a midsummer Jewish mourning period.
But after the ministers' meeting yesterday, Sharon appeared to distance himself from the proposal. ''I really want to help [the settlers] in any way possible, but delaying the implementation of the plan can create many complications," Sharon said, according to a statement issued by his office.
Participants said a final decision on the delay would come later this week after consultations with security officials, who have reacted coolly to changing the schedule.
''The key is with the security establishment because a delay also requires very complex security preparations," Vice Premier Shimon Peres said.
Under the withdrawal plan, Israel will pull out of all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four small settlements in the West Bank. About 9,000 Jewish settlers will be uprooted.
Yonatan Bassi, who heads the administration in charge of compensating the settlers, earlier had suggested delaying the start of the withdrawal until Aug. 15.
The date would fall after the annual three-week mourning period for the destruction of the biblical Jewish Temples. Many of the settlers slated for evacuation are observant Jews.
But some Cabinet ministers suggested that the delay would be needed to give the government more time to iron out hang-ups in withdrawal preparations.
After fighting the plan for months, settlers have only recently started negotiating with the government over compensation for their losses, and committees have been set up only in the past few days to decide on the complex issues involved in the evacuation, such as finding housing for uprooted settlers.
Some officials expressed concern that the proposed delay would scuttle the evacuation altogether. ''Any delay would broadcast weakness. Any delay would broadcast vacillation," said Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz, whose dovish Labor party recently joined the government to support the pullout.
Participants described a tense meeting yesterday. Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz, who opposes the pullout, said Labor ministers reacted in an uproar when he suggested delaying the withdrawal until late October, after a month of Jewish holidays.
Sharon responded by instructing Katz that the current timetable remains in effect.
Israel initially proposed the Gaza withdrawal as a unilateral act but has said it is willing to coordinate the pullout with the new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said he would be coordinating meetings this week.