Sharon rejects settlers' call for vote on Gaza pullout

Israeli premier holds firm during angry meeting

October 18, 2004|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met yesterday with leaders of the Jewish settler movement but held firm to plans for a Gaza Strip pullout that have left his former allies feeling angry and betrayed.

Sharon again rejected calls to hold a national referendum on the plan, which envisions removing settlers and soldiers from all 21 Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank by late next year.

The settlers expressed anger after the two-hour meeting, saying that the prime minister appeared intent on carrying out a plan they see as precipitous. It was Sharon's first formal session with the movement's leaders since he spelled out his proposal early this year for a "unilateral disengagement."

"In one word, this meeting was one big disgrace," said Yehoshua Mor-Yosef, a spokesman for the Yesha Council, the main settlers group. "We met with an impervious prime minister who reads out texts the press wrote for him.

"He is leading the nation to a chasm," Mor-Yosef added.

Early today, Israeli soldiers shot and killed two Palestinian gunmen who infiltrated Israel from the Gaza Strip, the military said.

The gunmen, who cut through the fence that surrounds the Gaza Strip and reached an orchard just 300 yards from an Israeli community, were killed after a lengthy gunbattle, the military said.

Those opposed to the pullout have said a nationwide referendum would allow the public to speak and thus reduce chances for a potentially violent rift in Israeli society over the controversial plan. Opinion polls show a solid majority of Israelis in favor of the withdrawal.

But Sharon has said that a vote would add months of delays to the evacuation, which he hopes to start by next summer. Israel has no referendum law, meaning that legislation would first have to be passed to govern such a vote.

The prime minister plans to present his proposal to parliament next Monday.

The plan faces opposition from a faction of Sharon's conservative Likud and others on the right, but analysts say prospects for approval appear good because of support from Labor and other parties on the left.

Subsequent legislation would provide compensation to the 8,000 Israelis in the Gaza Strip, and a few hundred in the northern West Bank, who would be forced to leave their homes.

The withdrawal proposal has infuriated Jewish settlers, who long idolized Sharon for his promotion of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

Sharon lost a nonbinding vote on the pullout among members of his party in May, but pressed ahead with the plan anyway. As a result, he has alienated many Likud faithful who view the withdrawal as a retreat from the party's long-standing vision of a Greater Israel.

Sharon has said leaving the Gaza Strip would reduce tensions with the more than 1.2 million Palestinians who live there and free the army from defending the area's Jewish settlements.

Palestinian leaders have derided the move as a ploy to solidify Israel's grip on parts of the West Bank, threatening their vision of a Palestinian state.

A growing number of Likud figures have joined the call for a referendum out of concern over a party split and possible unrest spurred by Jewish extremists.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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