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Netanyahu Backs Settlers' Proposal of Nationwide Vote on Gaza Pullout

September 14, 2004|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday joined hard-line opponents of Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip by urging that the idea be put to a nationwide referendum.

Netanyahu's call for a ballot could complicate life for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who is trying to move quickly on his plan to abandon all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four others in the West Bank by late next year.

Netanyahu, a powerful figure on the right and Sharon's chief rival inside the conservative Likud Party, has so far offered grudging support for the withdrawal plan. His endorsement of a referendum seems likely to boost settlers who oppose being removed from lands they consider their biblical birthright.

The plan's opponents have called on Sharon to put it to a general vote, though some have suggested requiring at least 60% support for passage.

The suggestion by Netanyahu drew criticism from Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who often speaks on Sharon's behalf. Olmert derided the idea as a delaying tactic.

In an interview published today in the Haaretz newspaper, Sharon said the referendum was "not on the agenda," arguing that there was too little time.

Netanyahu said a referendum would help reduce tensions at a time when Sharon has accused some opponents of inciting violence, or even civil war, in order to block the withdrawal. Settlers say Sharon ignored public sentiment by forging ahead despite losing a referendum among Likud members in May.

The withdrawal issue threatens to divide the party, whose leaders, Sharon included, traditionally have been staunch backers of the settlement movement.

"I believe this referendum may moderate this inflammation of passions the public is going through at this moment, and I believe that it may help us sail through difficult and dangerous straits," Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu said he favored a speedy process so that a vote would not delay the withdrawal. He sidestepped the key question of how high the threshold for winning should be set.

Sharon has lost his majority in parliament and alienated many rightist supporters in pushing for the withdrawal, placing him on shaky political ground. Netanyahu, a former prime minister widely seen as Sharon's likely successor, would benefit from pro-settler backing in a bid to become the next Likud leader, and possibly premier, if Sharon falls.

The pullout would affect the approximately 7,500 Jews who live among 1.3 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. A few hundred other Israelis live in the four settlements in the northern West Bank slated for evacuation.

Palestinians fear that Sharon's moves, coupled with construction of a security barrier that puts portions of the West Bank on the Israeli side, are unilateral efforts to create borders that would diminish a future Palestinian state. Sharon has said Israel lacks a negotiating partner on the Palestinian side and should act alone to fall back to more easily defensible borders.

Netanyahu and Sharon share the same conservative base and have jostled each other over the pullout. It was unclear whether the finance minister's call for a referendum represented more of the same.

Netanyahu endorsed the Sharon plan before the May 2 Likud vote, but then refused to campaign on its behalf, leading some in the prime minister's camp to blame him for its defeat. Later, Netanyahu joined other Likud ministers in withholding his support in the Cabinet until Sharon agreed to a phased withdrawal requiring a vote at each step.

Most polls show that a solid majority of Israelis favors leaving the Gaza Strip, but Sharon aides had brushed aside the idea of a referendum, fearing it would slow preparations for the evacuation. It could take months to hold a vote. Israel lacks a referendum process, and its parliament would first have to pass legislation creating one.

Meanwhile, preparations for the withdrawal were moving forward. Sharon's inner Cabinet is to consider draft legislation today that would govern compensation for residents who must abandon their homes. The measure calls for each family to be paid between $200,000 and $500,000, according to reports Monday in the Israeli media.

Settlers and their supporters have mounted a determined campaign. A protest in Jerusalem's Zion Square on Sunday night drew 40,000 people, police estimated.

Despite concerns about violence expressed by Sharon and other Israeli officials, the demonstration was largely free of inflammatory rhetoric and images.

Also Monday, an Israeli airstrike in the West Bank city of Jenin killed three Palestinian militants, according to Palestinian hospital and security officials. Among the dead were Mahmoud Khleifeh, who served as a top aide to Zakariya Zubeidi, the local commander of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

Security sources in Israel said all three militants were involved in past attacks against Israelis.

Khleifeh had survived two other assassination attempts by Israeli forces in recent weeks.

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