Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is defending his plan for unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians. Opinion polls show the majority of members of Mr. Sharon's Likud party are prepared to vote against the controversial plan in a party referendum this Sunday. The prime minister passionately defended his plan, saying he is confident it will win approval in the party referendum. In an interview on Israel Radio, Mr. Sharon said dismantling Jewish settlements is a necessary part of the painful compromises that must be made for peace.
"I will vacate Gaza," Mr. Sharon said. "It 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. Whoever is for me must vote for this plan."
An opinion poll published Thursday shows 51 percent of Likud voters oppose the Gaza pullout compared to 39 percent who support it. The survey by state-run Israel Radio mirrored similar results from surveys conducted by the country's major newspapers. All three surveys show a significant percentage, as high as 13-14 percent of Likud members, undecided on the issue.
Some see the Sharon position as a veiled threat to bring down his own government if the party vote fails. Right-wing members of Likud would like to see him 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.
Mr. Sharon avoided a direct answer to the question of whether he might resign.
"Look, I will win," he said. "I do not even try to think about another possibility because, should I not win, it would be the biggest possible triumph for Arafat and Hamas."
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 not seen as 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.
Cabinet minister Uzi Landau urged his fellow Likud voters to reject the Sharon plan. He told Israel Radio that while he supports the prime minister he does not support the disengagement plan.
"The issue before Likud voters is this," he said. "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.
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.