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Sharon Seeks Likud's Support for  Gaza Disengagement Plan - 2004-04-25


Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, has convened a top-level meeting of his supporters to map out a campaign strategy aimed at winning a referendum of his Likud party on his plan for disengagement from Palestinian areas. A week before the poll opinion surveys indicate he needs to win more backers to ensure victory.

Mr. Sharon discussed his disengagement plan with key Likud ministers in his cabinet, who say they support his proposals, but have not been encouraging other members of the party to vote in favor of them.

Among them is the Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister, who says he will back the plan in the referendum, despite some personal reservations.

Prime Minister Sharon wants Mr. Netanyahu to actively recruit other Likud members to come out publicly in support of his plan for a withdrawal of troops and Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

Mr. Sharon is hoping Mr. Netanyahu and other Likud ministers can counter the views of those in the opposing camp, such as Gilad Erdan, a Likud backbencher in the Israeli parliament.

Mr. Erdan says he and others in the Likud are lobbying to ensure Mr. Sharon is defeated in the party vote.

"We are trying to convince Likud members that the unilateral withdrawal, meaning the prime minister's plan, will only encourage the terror organizations in the Gaza Strip, and instead of peace we will have more and more terror waves coming inside Israel," he said.

Mr. Sharon says this is not the case. He told a group of students that his withdrawal plan will be combined with an all-out war against terrorism to ensure Israel's security is not placed at risk.

"At the same time we are conducting a non-stop act against terror, and we are not going to stop it as long as terror hits us," he said. "But altogether I believe the day will come [when] we will be living in peace. At the same time, we have to be very careful and not take any steps that might endanger the existence of the Jewish people. Because there is one place for the Jews, one place, one tiny small country. It is here - in Israel." Mr. Sharon's efforts to drum up support for his plan are expected to intensify this week ahead of the May 2 referendum of the Likud party.

Opinion polls indicate a majority of Likud members in favor, but observers say Mr. Sharon will have to do more campaigning to ensure that his opponents do not turn the tide of opinion against the prime minister.

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