- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 19, 2004

TEL AVIV — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s bid to forge a coalition with the rival Labor Party that would support his Gaza withdrawal plan suffered a devastating blow yesterday when activists from his Likud bloc voted to bar him from inviting the dovish party into the government.

In the latest sign of the ideological chasm between Mr. Sharon and party loyalists, some 1,450 members of the Likud Central Committee passed a resolution banning talks with Labor by a 58 percent to 42 percent margin. The vote was non-binding.

Without Labor as a coalition partner, Mr. Sharon will be hard-pressed to cobble together a stable majority in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, that will support him on both the disengagement and on crucial domestic policy.

However, Mr. Sharon had earlier told a party meeting that he planned to go ahead with his pullout from Gaza regardless of the outcome of yesterday’s vote.

Earlier yesterday, in the West Bank town of Ramallah, embattled Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was trying to defuse his own political crisis by issuing a rare mea culpa for “mistakes” that have permitted government corruption to fester while a promised reform of the Palestinian Authority languished.

The central committee also narrowly defeated a motion that would have authorized Mr. Sharon to negotiate with any “Zionist” political party — an intentionally broad move sponsored by Mr. Sharon as a hedge against an anticipated defeat of the original proposal.

The setback highlights the rightist Israeli leader’s political vulnerability even though his pledge to evacuate settlements and pull Israeli forces out of the Gaza Strip enjoys broad support among the Israeli public.

In May, the prime minister lost a non-binding referendum among Likud members on the disengagement plan, but he began moving ahead with preparations anyway.

“The prime minister must accept our position,” said Likud legislator Michael Ratzon after the results were announced. “The prime minister must read the writing on the wall.”

If Mr. Sharon loses a Knesset vote on the pullout plan, he will be forced to call elections.

Speaking over a raucous audience that booed and chanted “No to Labor,” during the speech, the prime minister told the gathering that Israel had arrived at a “historic” moment that required “difficult” decisions.

Mr. Sharon urged party delegates to emulate the pragmatism of Likud founder Menachem Begin, who forged a peace treaty with Egypt as prime minister. The alternative, he warned, was a splintering of the party.

“We need to decide whether or not the Likud will continue to lead the nation … or will the Likud be led by a rebellious, extremist and irresponsible opposition,” he said.

Mr. Sharon’s opponents warned that inviting Labor into the government would mean a wholesale capitulation of the Likud’s ideology in favor of the political compromises offered by previous Labor governments during ill-fated negotiations with the Palestinians.

“To add Labor not only means disengagement, it’s a return to the 1967 lines,” said Cabinet minister Uzi Landau, who has led the opponents of the Gaza withdrawal. “It’s to return Arafat and [Labor leader Shimon] Peres to center stage. It’s accelerating the partition of Jerusalem.”

The issue of Jerusalem is one of the central issues in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Mr. Arafat has been under mounting pressure from Palestinian legislators over the last six weeks following a rash of lawlessness in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

“There were wrong practices in some institutions, and some misused their positions,” he said before a session of the Palestinian parliament in Ramallah, according to the Associated Press.

“There were not enough efforts to strengthen the rule of law, the independence of the judicial institutions. … But we have begun measures to solve this.”

Legislators said the speech represented an important statement of intent to carry out reform, but Mr. Arafat faced pressure to articulate a plan for implementing the changes.

“People wanted to hear from him specifics and a genuine commitment to see this reform out,” said Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi. “It raised the right issues, but people wanted something concrete.”

Meanwhile yesterday in the Gaza Strip, Israel detonated an explosion in an olive grove near the house of a Palestinian militant, killing five Palestinians — four of whom were militants. But the main target of the attack, Ahmed Jabari, escaped with light wounds.

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