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Sharon Discusses Amendment to Gaza Disengagement Plan with Coalition Partners - 2004-05-04

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is meeting with his coalition partners to try to come up with an amended disengagement plan he hopes can win enough support to be implemented.

Sunday, Mr. Sharon's Likud Party voted down his original plan to dismantle all Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and portions of the West Bank.

Justice Minister Josef Lapid was among those meeting with Mr. Sharon. He said the Israeli leader has assured him he would continue peace efforts and would seek support for a modified disengagement plan.

Mr. Lapid, who heads the centrist Shinui party, has threatened to pull out of the coalition if disengagement is not implemented.

Speaking earlier on Israeli television, Mr. Lapid said the government can not be held hostage by what he says is a small minority of the country's total population.

"We are obliged by the decisions made by the government and the parliament," he said. "This is a democracy and not a one-party rule. And, we invite the government to continue with the peace process."

According to an opinion poll in the Israeli newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, had Mr. Sharon put the plan to a national referendum, it would have passed by over 60 percent.

For months, Mr. Sharon promoted his plan as vital to Israel's security in the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. President Bush endorsed it, but it was rejected by the Israeli leader's Likud Party in a referendum on Sunday.

Mr. Sharon is now considering a watered-down version of the plan that would include a very limited withdrawal of settlements from Gaza and a few from the West Bank.

The Israeli leader is also coming under pressure from the opposition Labor party, which supports his original disengagement plan and has incorporated it into its own party platform. Labor is calling for Mr. Sharon to step aside for early elections and a new government.

Speaking on Israel Radio, Labor Party member of parliament, Yitzhak Herzog said Mr. Sharon can no longer be effective.

"He cannot proceed with his plan. He is tied up by his own party members and his own peers," said Mr. Herzog. "He cannot implement any policy and the only policy they can implement is going against the tide and going against the interests of the people of Israel. And, therefore we believe that he must be replaced."

Mr. Sharon has vowed he will not resign.

Palestinians remain suspicious of Mr. Sharon's unilateral disengagement plan. They see it as a way to keep Palestinian land Israel now occupies in the West Bank. They say while they welcome any Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian areas, unilateral moves must not replace a negotiated settlement.

As the Israeli leader struggles to salvage some version of his plan, senior officials of the so-called Middle East Quartet of nations are to meet Tuesday in New York to see how they might revive the Roadmap Peace Plan, which has been stalled for months.

Quartet members, Russia, the United Nations, the European Union, and the United States, had endorsed the Roadmap, which was supposed to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through negotiations and was to result in an independent Palestinian state by next year.