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Sharon's Settler Withdrawal Plan Suffers Major Setback - 2004-08-19

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has suffered a major setback to his proposed withdrawal of Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip, after his Likud Party voted against forming a new coalition government to push the plan forward.

A majority of the members of Mr. Sharon's Likud Party voted against inviting the opposition Labor Party to form a national unity government.

The vote, at the party convention in Tel Aviv, is non-binding and there is at least a suggestion that it may still be possible for Mr. Sharon to go ahead with his plan to try to bring Labor into the government. His proposal to begin that process was approved by a large majority at a polling station reserved for Likud members of parliament and cabinet ministers. These are the people who would actually vote in the parliament for a Labor deal. Whether they would go against the wishes of the party majority and still support the plan when a real parliament vote comes remains an open question.

In a speech before the convention vote, Wednesday night Mr. Sharon called for his party's support.

He said, "There are moments in a nation's life when it has to make difficult decisions." He asserted, "Israel has reached such a moment."

Mr. Sharon began negotiations with Labor, aimed at bringing them into his government, after Likud lost its parliament majority in May.

Mr. Sharon's chief opponent in Likud, Uzi Landau, says the vote against the plan was not a rejection of the Likud Party, but, rather, of the path the prime minister wanted to follow.

Meanwhile, witnesses say an Israeli helicopter fired missiles at two buildings in Gaza City, overnight. The Israeli military says it hit two workshops, one of which belonged to the family of a suicide bomber who blew herself up in January, killing four Israelis. The Israeli military frequently attacks such workshops, saying Palestinian militants use them to manufacture weapons for attacks on Israelis.