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Sharon 'Disengagement Plan' Faces Tough Opposition in Israel - 2004-04-16

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arrived home Friday to face what shapes up as a tough political battle to win backing for his plan for disengagement from Palestinian areas, despite the support he received from President Bush during their White House meeting. Mr. Sharon's son, Omri, says the prime minister could resign if he fails to win a referendum of the ruling Likud party on the plan early next month.

Mr. Sharon declined to speak to reporters on his return and flew instead straight to his private ranch in the southern Negev area of Israel.

He is reported to be holding discussions with his advisers on how to boost support for the Likud party's referendum on his disengagement plan, slated for May 2.

Details of the plan, which President Bush publicly supported at their summit in Washington on Wednesday, have now been circulated to Likud members of the Israeli cabinet.

The document says Israel will remove all Jewish settlements and end any permanent military presence in the Gaza Strip by the end of next year.

Following the withdrawal, Israel would no longer accept responsibility for the Palestinian residents of Gaza, whose welfare would then be in the hands of the international community.

Under the plan, Israel also would remove four Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

The prime minister could be in for a tough time in his own party. Opinion polls published in Israel on Friday indicate that only a slender majority of the Likud are currently in favor of Mr. Sharon's proposals.

Observers say this indicates the prime minister will have to campaign hard in the coming weeks if he hopes to ensure a win in the party referendum.

Leading the campaign in support of Mr. Sharon is Israel's deputy premier, Ehud Olmert, also a member of the Likud.

"We hope to reduce the level of conflict between us and the Palestinians and to lay the foundations for further negotiations in the future between us and the Palestinians within the framework of the vision of President Bush [for Middle East peace], which was spelled out on June 24, 2002, which is known now as the road map [peace plan]," he said.

Another backer is Mr. Sharon's son Omri, a Likud party activist and member of the Israeli parliament.

Omri Sharon has warned fellow Likud members that his father might quit as prime minister if the disengagement plan is not approved in the party referendum.

He says such a move could bring down the government and result in the opposition parties coming to power in the next general elections.