Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday he would vote against further phases of disengagement following the implementation of its first phase.

Addressing Likud party members in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said when the pullout comes up again for a cabinet vote ‘I will vote against’

Netanyahu explained that the disengagement was behind the growing strength of Hamas.

‘The Palestinians have bought Hamas’ argument that it and only it has made us run and as a result … Hamas is growing stronger,’ Netanyahu said.

Most Israeli commentators believe that Netanyahu’s statements has no significance as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, with labor joining the governing coalition, enjoys a solid majority behind his disengagement plan.

The finance minister remarks are seen as an attempt to affirm his status as the main challenger to Sharon’s leadership. Netanyahu has been subjected to sever criticisms by Likud’ hawks for not standing firmly against the evacuation of settlers.

The Israeli cabinet has already approved the plan for Israel’s first removal of settlements from the Palestinian territories, but Sharon has agreed to let ministers vote again separately to authorize each of the four stages of the pullout.

Netanyahu’s remarks followed sever criticisms against the disengagement plan by outgoing Israeli army Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon, who warned that the pullout and the plan to allow the establishment of a Palestinian state would bring another war in the region.

Both Netanyahu and Ya’alon were responsible for the implementation of financial and military preparations to carry out the disengagement plan.