Sharon presses on with Gaza pullout plan


JERUSALEM, Reuters

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed on Thursday to press ahead with an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip despite a humiliating rebuff from his own party that could jeopardize the plan.

Sharon’s rebellious right-wing Likud voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to bar him from forging a “unity” coalition with the center-left Labor Party, a proponent of land-for-peace deals with the Palestinians, to help carry out a Gaza pullout.

If Sharon defies Likud’s pro-settler hardliners as he has done before, he could provoke a schism in Israel’s largest party or risk early elections, which could stall any withdrawal.

But if he complies, he will find it hard to muster a cabinet majority to implement his blueprint for “disengaging” from conflict with the Palestinians — even though it is backed by the United States and enjoys broad public support in Israel.

Despite a weakened hand, Sharon signalled his intent to keep up efforts to reshape his coalition to restore the parliamentary majority he lost over the plan, which calls for removing all soldiers and settlers from Gaza next year.

“The prime minister is continuing with the disengagement,” Sharon’s office said, apparently seeking to assuage U.S. concerns. “He will try to build a stable coalition government.”

Seemingly unfazed by the brewing crisis, Sharon went ahead with a weeklong vacation starting on Thursday. Parliament is out of session until October.

Likud’s Central Committee, more hardline than the party’s electorate, voted 58 percent against allying with Labor, headed by Shimon Peres, Israel’s leading dove.

Sharon, once considered godfather of settlement expansion but now reviled by settlers and their supporters, wants Labor to ensure the backing needed to put withdrawals into motion.

Polls show most Israelis favor evacuating Jewish settlers from Gaza, regarding the coastal strip as a bloody liability. Likud rebels argue that abandoning any land Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war would “reward Palestinian terrorism”.

Facing internal dissent of his own, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat was balking at signing a package of anti-corruption reforms after a rare admission of mistakes and a promise to clean up the Palestinian Authority, lawmakers said.

The Palestinian parliament postponed a session on Thursday in protest against what one lawmaker called Arafat’s “stalling”. He has recently been hit with the stiffest challenge to his rule since he returned from exile a decade ago.

Adding to tensions, Israel’s army closed checkpoints on Gaza’s main north-south road, cutting the Strip in three, after militants fired makeshift rockets into a southern Israeli town.

Soldiers shot dead a youth in southern Gaza, witnesses said. Military sources said troops fired at “suspicious figures” approaching an army post in an area off-limits to Palestinians.

One Sharon aide said it would now be “politically unfeasible” for him to push ahead with coalition talks with Labour without first trying to reach a deal with smaller ultra-religious parties he has also been courting.

Some Labor lawmakers called for early elections, though it was doubtful they could win a parliamentary no-confidence vote.

Sources close to Sharon said he wanted to avoid early elections but they could not be ruled out.

His plan calls for removing 8,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza, where they live in 21 fortified enclaves among 1.3 million Palestinians, and closing four of the 120 settlements in the West Bank by the end of 2005.