"We are now proceeding forward with preparations to leave the Gaza Strip -- a process which will begin five months from today," he said.
The disengagement plan calls for the evacuation of some 8,500 Jewish settlers who live alongside 1.3 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Another 230,000 Jewish settlers will continue to live -- at least for now -- in West Bank settlements built on land occupied by Israeli since the Middle East War of 1967.
Each phase of Sharon's four-step withdrawal plan also requires an additional cabinet vote. Meanwhile, Sharon continues to face a political crisis over the state budget that will determine whether his cabinet will even be in office to push through the final disengagement votes. If the Israeli budget crisis is not resolved by the end of March, Sharon's government must resign and new elections must be held.
Dominique Moisi, the deputy director of the French Institute for International Relations, told RFE/RL that yesterday's cabinet vote shows there is political will in Israel for disengagement. "What is clear is that the political will of Ariel Sharon is very strong," he said. "That's the key. He wants it and he has a majority of Israelis backing him -- if not within his own party, then at least within Israel. This is a decisive first step going into the right direction. And I'm not a cynic at all because it is a daring move [based] on the sheer exhaustion of the Israelis and the Palestinians. The two peoples are now exhausted and are ready to make a truce -- if not a peace."
Moisi also said that the release today of some 500 Palestinian prisoners by Israel further demonstrates Sharon’s commitment to making the peace process work. But Moisi notes that the controversial security barrier being built by Israel continues to be a potential stumbling block to a permanent peace agreement.
"The wall has been, in fact, an instrument of peace by making a divorce quite real between Palestinians and Israelis. The geographic position of the wall, by contrast, could become a very formidable obstacle to peace if it was felt by the Palestinians that the wall was not only to secure Israelis' lives but to take some more land from the Palestinians," Moisi said.
Palestinians officials are expressing concern about another Israeli cabinet vote yesterday -- a vote that endorsed a new route for the security barrier that loops around some of the remaining Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The new route places the major settlement blocs of Ma'ale Adumim and Gush Etzion on the Israeli side of the barrier along with about 7 percent of the occupied West Bank territory.
The Palestinians worry that Israel may be trying to impose de facto borders around portions of the occupied West Bank.
Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sought to ease those concerns. He noted yesterday that Israel has repeatedly declared that the barrier is only temporary and will be removed when terrorist attacks against Israelis stop.
"There is no annexation," Olmert said. "There is a provisional, temporary security measure which will be helpful to the peace process. No one believes that we can continue with the peace process while terror is taking place. There has not been any other measure [that has been] effective in preventing terrorist actions [except for] a barrier such as this fence."
Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Sha'ath said the Palestinian Authority is waiting to see how Sharon's disengagement plan is implemented.
"This has not become part of the 'road map' [for a permanent Middle East peace]," Sha'ath said. "Therefore, we are not party to this resolution. It's a unilateral Israeli resolution. What we care about is to see what happens on the ground and how this is going to become part of the road map."
Sharon has fought for more than a year to get his disengagement plan approved. Right-wing hard-liners in Israel are opposed to ceding any occupied land where Jewish settlements have been built during the past 38 years. Opinion polls, however, show that most Israelis welcome a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
But ultranationalists in Israel call it a "reward for terrorism." And many Jewish settlers say they think they have a biblical birthright to the Palestinian land.