Sharon seeks party support for Gaza withdrawal plan

Israeli opinion polls indicate Likud members will reject his proposal

April 30, 2004|By Joel Greenberg | Joel Greenberg,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

JERUSALEM - With opinion polls indicating for the first time that his Gaza withdrawal plan would be rejected by his Likud Party, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon scrambled yesterday to shore up support for the proposal, portraying a coming party referendum on the plan as a vote of confidence in him.

In radio and newspaper interviews, Sharon predicted victory and warned that a defeat in the referendum Sunday would bring down the Likud-led government and forfeit U.S. diplomatic assurances that Israel could retain parts of the West Bank in a final peace agreement and bar the return of Palestinian refugees.

"You can't be for me but against the plan I am promoting," Sharon told Army Radio. "Whoever believes in me must vote for the disengagement plan. Otherwise, it will be a victory for Arafat and Hamas, and will ultimately bring about the downfall of the Likud."

Sharon said last week that the referendum was not legally binding and suggested that he would present the plan to the Cabinet and parliament even if it is rejected by Likud. But a defeat is expected to hamper his ability to proceed.

Although opinion surveys have shown that a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip has broad support among Israelis, polls published yesterday by two newspapers indicated for the first time that the plan would fail in the Likud referendum of 193,000 registered party members.

Opinion polls have shown a steady erosion of support for the plan among Likud members in the past two weeks as settlers from the Gaza Strip and hard-line leaders of the party have lobbied hard against it, arguing that it would "reward terror" and endanger Israel.

Sharon asserts that the plan, which calls for the withdrawal of settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip and the evacuation of four isolated West Bank settlements, would improve Israel's security while consolidating Israel's hold on large settlement clusters in the West Bank. He won President Bush's support for the plan at a meeting April 14 at the White House.

A poll of 583 Likud members published yesterday by Yediot Ahronot, Israel's most widely circulated newspaper, showed 47 percent against the plan and 39 percent in favor, with 14 percent undecided. No margin of error was given. A similar poll published by the paper the day after Sharon's meeting with Bush showed 54 percent in favor and 32 percent opposed.

Another poll published yesterday in the newspaper Maariv showed a smaller gap, with 45 percent against, 42 percent in favor and 13 percent undecided. The poll surveyed 470 voters and had a margin of error of 4.5 points.

In an interview yesterday on Israel Radio, Sharon said a defeat would have broad domestic implications and "cloud our relationship with the United States."

"I don't even want to think about what will happen, God forbid, to the economy, what will happen to the stock market," he said.

Sharon said the settlers are only "a small part of the state of Israel" and that Likud voters should act in the interests "of the general population of Israel." About 7,800 settlers live in the Gaza Strip in heavily guarded enclaves among 1.3 million Palestinians.

Justice Minister Yosef Lapid of the centrist Shinui Party sent Sharon a letter demanding that he submit the withdrawal plan to the Cabinet for approval even if it fails in the Likud referendum.

"The issue is war or peace, our standing in the world, our relationship with the United States, our security," Lapid told Israel Radio. "It is not the Likud that should determine the fate of the country."

In another development, the Israeli army expressed regret for the death of a Palestinian university lecturer killed near his house when troops opened fire on two suspected Hamas militants April 23 in the West Bank village of Taluza.

Military officials originally had said that the Palestinian, Yasser Abu Laimun, 32, who taught at the Arab American University in Jenin, had links to the fugitives. However, in its announcement yesterday, the army acknowledged that he was "not involved in terrorist activity."

In Gaza City, a bomb went off at the home of Gaza's police chief, Ghazi Jabali, but caused no injuries. Jabali had left the house a short time earlier. Palestinians said the bombing apparently was linked to internal power struggles.

In February, backers of Mohammed Dahlan, the former security chief in Gaza, assaulted Jabali in his office and later traded gunfire with policemen, killing an officer and wounding several others.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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