- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2004

TEL AVIV — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, giving in to opposition from hard-line members of his government, yesterday said he would ask his Likud Party to approve his proposal to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

The announcement, made at a party convention, was a risky move for the prime minister, who has invested much of his political capital among Israelis — and in Washington — on his “disengagement plan.”

A “no” vote at a time when Mr. Sharon is also under investigation for purported corruption would leave him politically vulnerable. A “yes” vote, on the other hand, could be the final blow to hard-liners in Likud who oppose territorial concessions and have been sniping at the prime minister. Mr. Sharon pledged he would abide by the outcome of the vote.

After conducting opinion polls, Mr. Sharon feels confident the 200,000 members of the party will back him, Israeli news reports said.

Mr. Sharon has proposed unilaterally evacuating most or all Gaza Strip settlements and some West Bank communities if peacemaking with the Palestinians remains frozen. He told the convention his proposal is aimed at improving Israeli security.

“Because there is no partner on the Palestinian side, we must make difficult decisions in the near future,” he said. “I will bring these things to a democratic test. … The referendum will obligate all leaders of the Likud, and me among them.”

Likud officials said the vote could take place in May, after Mr. Sharon returns from Washington, where he is scheduled to discuss his withdrawal plan with President Bush on April 14. The United States so far has refused to support the plan, requesting more details.

Meanwhile, a Palestinian militant group with ties to Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement warned U.S. envoys not to visit the Palestinian territories, although some activists later backed down from the veiled threats.

The U.S. envoys are to arrive today to hear more about the plan.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade also criticized a U.S. veto last week of a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s assassination of Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman said he did not think the American delegation planned to enter the West Bank or Gaza Strip. In October, a roadside bombing in Gaza killed three American guards traveling in a diplomatic convoy.

Meanwhile, 101 Israeli reserve military officers, in a letter to Cabinet ministers, said the route of the barrier Israel is building in the West Bank will harm the country’s security instead of improving it.

The Israeli government says the complex of fences, walls and barbed wire that eventually will stretch 425 miles is needed to keep out Palestinian attackers.

Palestinians say it disrupts the lives of thousands of Palestinians by cutting them off from their land, jobs and schools.

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