- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 19, 2004

TEL AVIV — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said yesterday that he would press ahead with his Gaza disengagement plan despite a vote by his Likud party a day earlier blocking efforts to broaden the governing coalition.

“The prime minister is determined to continue with the disengagement plan and the diplomatic process and he will try to build a stable coalition,” Mr. Sharon’s office said in a statement.

But a day after the Israeli prime minister suffered his second reproach from party loyalists in four months, his aides remained vague about how the prime minister planned to proceed.

Without bringing the dovish Labor Party to the coalition, Mr. Sharon will be hard-pressed to find other allies who can sit together in the same coalition.

Responding to the Likud decision, Labor Party leader Shimon Peres called for early elections, but he refused to rule out entirely a resumption of talks to form a unity government with Mr. Sharon.

The results of Wednesday’s votes are widely seen as a triumph of the ideological hard-line core of the Likud, which is opposed to Mr. Sharon’s initiative to withdraw Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

But a leading Likud lawmaker said that many supporters of the disengagement initiative joined the hard-liners in opposing negotiations with Labor for reasons that were more political than ideological.

“There were many other elements that played a major role,” said Yuval Steinmetz, head of the parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. “It was not a victory for those who were against unilateral disengagement. It wasn’t pure ideology.”

Mr. Steinmetz, who said he abstained on the votes, added that the outcome doesn’t necessarily rule out a coalition with Labor in the future if Mr. Sharon handles negotiations and the Likud leadership differently.

Banner headlines in the two top-selling papers proclaimed that the prime minister had suffered “defeat” and “humiliation” at the hands of Likud loyalists who blocked negotiations on a unity coalition with the Labor Party.

Observers said Mr. Sharon still has the upper hand in his party because the Likud suffered just as much public damage from the televised infighting.

“There’s no doubt that it was a self-knockout,” said Industry and Labor Minister Ehud Olmert, an ally of Mr. Sharon. “It didn’t add unity or strength.”

Analysts said the results of the central committee votes make it more likely that elections will be held earlier than the scheduled date of November 2006. But the Likud party might have the most to lose in a nationwide vote.

Among a public that favors Mr. Sharon as the most popular politician, according to public opinion polls, the defeat for the prime minister at the hands of the Likud activists highlights a party that has drifted right of the Israeli consensus.

“There hasn’t been something like this in a long time,” wrote Ben Caspit in the daily Ma’ariv newspaper. “The leader has no party, the party doesn’t have the people, and the people don’t understand what’s going on.”

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