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Israel's Likud Votes Sunday on Gaza Withdrawal Plan - 2004-05-01


Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says that a no vote by members of his Likud Party in a referendum on his controversial disengagement plan could bring down the government. Opinion polls show the majority of Likud members are prepared to vote against the controversial plan in a party referendum Sunday.

The prime minister passionately defended his plan saying he is confident it will win approval in the party referendum. In an interview on Israeli TV Friday, Mr. Sharon said dismantling Jewish settlements in Gaza is a necessary part of painful compromises that must be made for peace. He also said that new elections will have to be called if Likud members reject the disengagement plan.

Mr. Sharon said that defeat of the plan, which calls for evacuating all Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and some isolated ones in the northern West Bank, would create "very, very difficult conditions" for him to lead the country.

Mr. Sharon has said his plan is the only way to bring peace and security to Israel and that whoever believes in him must vote for the disengagement plan. "You cannot play with this issue," he has said. "Whoever is for me must vote for this plan."

Recent opinion polls show that nearly 50 percent of Likud voters oppose the Gaza pullout compared to less than 40 percent who support it.

Some right-wing members of Likud would like to see Mr. Sharon go because they feel he betrayed them by ending his support for the expansion of settlements.

But mainstream Likud members do not want the political turmoil that would come with new elections. They know that without right-wing support in a general election Likud would lose the vote. Historically, Likud has suffered each time it lost the support of the right-wing faction of the party.

Creating even the impression of being forced out of Gaza could have serious political consequences for Mr. Sharon. His predecessor, Ehud Barak, was voted out of office because he was seen as not being tough enough in dealing with the Palestinians. In particular, his withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon created the perception among Palestinians that militants there had forced Israel out - a perception that many Israelis saw as an unacceptable sign of weakness.

Some Israelis are worried that a Gaza withdrawal would be caving in to terrorism. Cabinet minister Uzi Landau, who has been a faithful Sharon supporter on most issues, urged his fellow Likud voters this week to reject the Sharon plan. He said the issue before Likud voters is, "do we give Hamas a state for terror in the Gaza Strip or not?" Mr. Landau said that to disengage from Gaza before terrorism is defeated would be a betrayal of the prime minister's promise to end terror.

Under the Sharon disengagement plan Israel would withdraw all its settlements from the Gaza Strip and four small settlements from the West Bank and expand large Jewish enclaves already there.

In an interview broadcast on Israel Radio Saturday, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz made an appeal to voters to support the plan as the only realistic path for Israel to follow. He said there was no peace partner on the Palestinian side and with terrorist attacks against Israel continuing Israel must take the initiative and bring about a reality that is, in his words, "good for Israel." He said he believes the referendum can pass.

Palestinians, who welcome an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, see the disengagement as a ploy aimed at consolidating Israel's hold on large chunks of West Bank land. They say it is a land grab and that the future borders of a Palestinian state should be achieved through negotiations and not a unilateral declaration by Israel.

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