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Sharon Rebuffed by Party Again

Likud rejects a proposal to form an alliance with Labor. The Israeli leader needs rivals' support to push through a plan to pull out from Gaza.

August 19, 2004|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Once again, Ariel Sharon's own party proved to be his toughest constituency.

The Israeli prime minister was rebuffed early today by rebels within his conservative Likud Party seeking to block his plans to forge an alliance with the left-leaning Labor Party. Sharon needs Labor's support to push through his controversial initiative to withdraw Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip.

Although the ballot by Likud's Central Committee was nonbinding, it represented the latest in a series of setbacks for Sharon as the 76-year-old former general tries to execute an about-face in his once-ardent support for the settlement movement.

A senior aide to the prime minister who requested anonymity indicated shortly after the vote by Likud's policymaking body was tallied that Sharon would be undeterred in his aim of getting out of Gaza.

A raucous party gathering preceding the vote laid bare the deep ideological rifts within the Likud, whose rank and file overwhelmingly rejected the pullout plan in a May referendum.

The prime minister, who had originally promised to abide by the results of that vote, instead ignored the move. The pent-up anger among the party's right wing was readily apparent in this latest political confrontation.

On Wednesday night, addressing about 3,000 Likud delegates at a Tel Aviv convention hall, Sharon was so loudly jeered by hecklers -- and cheered by his supporters, who were trying to drown out the dissenters -- that he had to break off his speech while a party official pleaded for order.

"I have to ask everyone to stop shouting. It's impossible to hold a discussion like this!" said Yisrael Katz, Sharon's burly agriculture minister. "Let the prime minister speak!"

As Sharon took the podium, looking somber in a dark suit, backers using his nickname chanted, "Arik, Arik, king of Israel!" while detractors booed and jeered, waving signs that said "Likud Yes -- Labor No."

In his speech, Sharon assumed a statesmanlike air, ignoring the ruckus playing out in front of him.

Without referring to his Gaza plan, he spoke of the need for government to "place the good of the country and its citizens above any other interest."

But flashes of anger showed as Sharon denounced "a group within the party that has been plotting against the government since its establishment."

The Likud rebels, in turn, sought to portray the prime minister's move to bring Labor into the government and to advance the Gaza pullout plan as a betrayal of his own principles.

"I am in favor of the same Ariel Sharon who built this party," said lawmaker Uzi Landau, the unofficial leader of the dissident camp. But he said, "The party's institutions have been trampled, its members dismissed and democratic procedures ignored."

Sharon lost his parliamentary majority this summer during infighting over the Gaza plan and since then has been courting various potential political partners, principally Labor, led by veteran statesman Shimon Peres.

Some of the most vehement opposition to an alliance with Labor has come from senior Likud figures with considerable personal stake in the outcome. Sharon's foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, would probably be out of a job if Labor joined the government, with his portfolio going to Peres. Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pursuing a fiscal austerity program involving deep cuts to social services, which Peres has said amounts to "piggish capitalism."

Sharon's defenders argued that the Israeli leader, reelected last year by a landslide, should act as he sees fit. Lawmaker Matan Vilnai called the party's internal battles "a deep, ideological and sincere dispute," but urged: "Let the prime minister figure it out and decide."

Even though the Likud vote, like the May referendum, was nonbinding, commentators said it was bound to seriously affect Sharon's public standing and his ability to lead his party. Before the results of the late-night ballot were known, commentator Hanan Kristal said a defeat would constitute a "knockout blow" to the prime minister.

Sharon has hinted that without a mandate from his party to proceed with the Gaza plan, he might ask for early elections. Doing so could be a way of punishing party functionaries who defied him -- and who might fail to win reelection as lawmakers.

For months now, Sharon -- a lifelong hawk and the chief advocate of Jewish settlements outside Israel's pre-1967 boundaries -- has found himself in the strange position of promoting a step that the nation's peace activists have urged for years: getting out of the Gaza Strip.

Polls suggest that most Israelis view an occupation of the volatile Mediterranean enclave -- where about 8,000 Jewish settlers live among 1.2 million Palestinians -- as a drain on the country's resources and an unrelenting danger to Israeli troops deployed there. Sharon has come to believe that Israel would be stronger if it withdrew to defensible borders.

However, many in Likud cling to the notion of a "Greater Israel" encompassing the West Bank and Gaza.

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