- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2004

From combined dispatches

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said yesterday he was prepared to hold a referendum on a plan to dismantle virtually all Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip amid new signs the proposal threatened the stability of his government.

“If they want a referendum, it’s a good idea,” Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin quoted the prime minister as saying when told two deputies of his Likud Party would submit legislation next week authorizing a referendum.

Ten Likud lawmakers sent a letter to Mr. Sharon threatening to abandon the prime minister if he moves forward with his plans without their consent.

“We announce beforehand that it will be very difficult for us to support this plan without the approval of the Likud institutions on this sensitive subject,” the lawmakers wrote. They added that they would not support the entry of the opposition Labor Party into the government.

A senior political source said Mr. Sharon’s readiness to go to a plebiscite “indicates he’s confident that he has the majority support of the Israeli people.”

Fifty-nine percent of Israelis polled backed a pullout from Gaza.

Labor said Tuesday it would back Mr. Sharon’s plan, assuring him of a parliamentary majority even if two ultranationalist parties quit the government.

But one of the lawmakers who signed yesterday’s letter, Yuli Edelstein, claimed the group had enough support from other Likud members to block the dramatic move on settlements.

Even if the effort fails, the letter reflected the internal divisions that Mr. Sharon faces over his Gaza pullout plan.

On Tuesday, Mr. Sharon shrugged off the growing threats, saying he was determined to go ahead with plans to remove 17 settlements in the Gaza Strip and three in the West Bank without waiting for a peace deal with the Palestinians. He said he would try to form a new governing coalition rather than back down.

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan gave strong backing to Mr. Sharon’s plan, saying it could provide new momentum for Middle East peace.

“The withdrawal from Gaza that has been announced by the prime minister — if it does take place — can really give us a very important moment, a new dynamic that can propel the process forward,” Mr. Annan said yesterday.

The prime minister’s surprise announcement Monday angered Israeli settlers in Gaza and led skeptics to suspect it was an attempt to deflect attention from a widening corruption probe against him.

Yesterday, Mr. Sharon said his plan was not related to the corruption probe, Israeli radio reported. Speaking to reporters at the Israeli parliament building, he said he was moving forward in spite of his legal troubles, not because of them.

Mr. Sharon, who has denied wrongdoing, is to be questioned by police today on suspicion he accepted bribes from an Israeli real-estate developer.

Meanwhile, in the West Bank yesterday, the army said it had arrested a senior operative in the militant Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in the village of Tubas. Palestinian sources identified the man as Jihad Sawafta, who they said had escaped an Israeli assassination attempt in 2002.

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