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Sharon's Party to Vote on Gaza Plan

The Israeli leader tells a Likud gathering that he will abide by the results of a referendum on his proposal to withdraw from settlements.

March 31, 2004|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Beset by a bribery scandal, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Tuesday went before a gathering of his Likud Party to endorse a party referendum on his Gaza Strip withdrawal proposal.

Sharon told the convention in Tel Aviv that he would abide by the results of the vote among the more than 200,000 members of the right-leaning party, whose leaders have been divided on the pullout idea. No date was set for the referendum, which had been approved by delegates at the meeting earlier in the evening. It is expected to follow Sharon's planned visit next month to Washington.

The prime minister said his plan to separate unilaterally from the Palestinians was necessary because Israel had no partner on the Palestinian side with whom to negotiate peace.

"Accepting the democratic decision, as reached by the widest forum, is the right way to maintain unity within the Likud, also at times of difficult decisions," said Sharon, the party's leader. "It is allowed to have differences of opinion before the decision is reached, but we must stand united once it is reached."

Sharon has yet to provide details of the withdrawal plan, which calls for evacuating most or all of the 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and perhaps a handful of sites in the West Bank.

The idea of a withdrawal from Israeli settlements has stirred opposition among Sharon's right-wing allies, including hawkish members of Likud, which historically has promoted the establishment of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Some party members heckled Sharon during the first minutes of his speech.

The referendum was seen as a way for Sharon to build momentum -- and party unity -- for his proposal before taking it to the Cabinet and parliament for approval, as he has promised to do.

Polls have shown strong backing nationwide for evacuating the Gaza settlements. Sharon has portrayed the pullout as a way to reduce friction with the Palestinians and to free the Israeli army from defending the 7,500 Jewish residents of Gaza, who live among about 1.2 million Palestinians.

The referendum plan comes as Israel's attorney general is considering whether to issue an indictment against Sharon on allegations that he took bribes from a land developer.

On Sunday, the state prosecutor in the case recommended filing charges against the prime minister, but the final decision will be made by Atty. Gen. Menachem Mazuz. It could take a month or more before an indictment is issued or ruled out.

By moving ahead with a party vote, Sharon may be seeking to ensure that his withdrawal plan survives even if his government does not.

Strong rank-and-file party support for the idea would make it easier for a successor from the Likud to proceed.

Sharon plans to travel to Washington for an April 14 meeting with President Bush that will focus on the prime minister's disengagement plan. Right-wing politicians in Israel's governing coalition urged Sharon on Tuesday to postpone the trip until after Mazuz's decision.

Businessman David Appel, an influential member of the Likud, has been charged with trying to bribe the prime minister to win backing for a proposed real estate development in the late 1990s, when Sharon was foreign minister.

"The prime minister had better wait until matters are clarified and not go to the United States with such fateful plans," Housing Minister Effi Eitam, a member of the National Religious Party, told Israel Radio.

Israeli officials have been saying they expect Sharon will return from the U.S. with a deal that will enable him to seek formal Israeli government approval of the disengagement plan.

Three senior American envoys who have been deeply involved in the discussions over the plan are to return here Thursday for sessions the State Department characterized as part of an "ongoing dialogue" with Israel and other regional players.

Despite Israeli assertions that Sharon would return with a deal in hand, a State Department spokesman said it was too early to declare a U.S. endorsement of the disengagement plan. "We're not at the point yet to render some kind of judgment or characterization," spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday.

In other developments Tuesday, thousands of Arab citizens of Israel demonstrated as part of the annual Land Day celebration, a commemoration of the 1976 deaths of six Israeli Arabs killed in clashes with police during protests over the seizure of land in the northern area known as the Galilee.

Tuesday's remembrance included speeches by Arab politicians and a general strike in Arab-majority villages. It was generally free of disturbances.

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