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Sharon Consults With Cabinet on Defeated Disengagement Plan - 2004-05-03

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has begun consultations with his cabinet to find a way forward after his disengagement plan was resoundingly defeated by members of his right-wing Likud party.

Mr. Sharon met with Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz to try to shore up support for disengagement.

During a meeting with Likud lawmakers, Mr. Sharon reminded them of their duty as elected officials.

The people of Israel chose us to find a way to bring quiet, peace and security and to improve the economy he said, adding - I intend to do that. There is no other reason for us to be here in the Knesset.

Mr. Sharon had said that his disengagement plan was the best way forward to make Israel more secure, in light of the lack of real prospects for peace with the Palestinians. His plan calls for dismantling all Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and several small ones in the West Bank.

But Sunday, Likud members handed Mr. Sharon a resounding defeat by turning down his disengagement plan by a 60 to 40-percent margin. The prime minister had warned that a vote against the plan was a vote against him. Nevertheless, he said after the results were announced that he has no intention of resigning.

The White House issued a statement saying its position has not changed as a result of the referendum and that President Bush welcomes Prime Minister Sharon's plan. The statement called it a courageous and important step toward peace. It said the White House will be in consultation with the prime minister and the government of Israel about how to move forward.

During a visit to Washington last month, Mr. Sharon received President Bush's support for the plan. But Jewish settlers and right-wing groups were vehemently opposed and mounted an effective grassroots campaign against it.

The Likud defeat was certainly a humiliation for Mr. Sharon, but opinion polls show that a majority of Israelis supports disengagement and that may give the prime minister more room to maneuver.

His advisers also point out that even within Likud the results of the vote may not really indicate how the rank-and-file feel, since just more than half the eligible voters cast ballots.

Mr. Sharon could call a national referendum on the plan, but that would take time to organize. Supporters say he will likely modify his original plan and then put it to his cabinet and the parliament before moving ahead.