- The Washington Times - Friday, March 5, 2004

JERUSALEM — Israel will wait until after the U.S. presidential election in November to withdraw troops from the Gaza Strip, a security official said yesterday, while soldiers sealed the West Bank and Gaza Strip amid new warnings of attacks by Palestinian militants.

The moves came as an Israeli newspaper released a poll that put Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s approval rating at its lowest since he took office in 2001. For the first time, a majority of Israelis said he should resign, the poll said.

The poll in the Yediot Ahronot daily said 57 percent of Israelis believed Mr. Sharon was not trustworthy.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz decided not to withdraw troops from the Gaza Strip before U.S. presidential elections in November and will brief U.S. officials on his position during a trip to Washington next week, a security official said on the condition of anonymity.

Israel has said it would withdraw from much of Gaza and parts of the West Bank if peace talks remain frozen in coming months. The United States has not rejected the plan outright, but has expressed reservations about unilateral actions. The U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan calls for a negotiated agreement.

Earlier this week, Dov Weisglass, a senior Sharon aide, discussed the proposed withdrawal with top U.S. officials. The Ma’ariv daily said yesterday that U.S. officials pressed Mr. Weisglass for the delay, fearing the pullout could spark chaos at a time when the Bush administration wants to avoid further upheaval in the Middle East.

However, Sharon adviser Assaf Shariv said yesterday that no dates for a withdrawal were raised during the meetings with U.S. officials.

The closure on the West Bank and Gaza was imposed for the duration of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which ends Monday. Such closures, routine during holidays, idle thousands of Palestinian laborers who have jobs in Israel.

In central Israel, police put up roadblocks yesterday. On one highway, officers searched each car amid heightened warnings of plans by militants to carry out attacks.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad have threatened revenge for recent Israeli air strikes. Yesterday, a homemade rocket fired from Gaza hit a parking lot outside a supermarket in the Israeli border town of Sderot.

In the Dahaf poll in Yediot, 57 percent of 501 respondents said Mr. Sharon was not a trustworthy prime minister, up from 51 percent in a February poll. The survey had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

For the first time, a majority of respondents — 53 percent — also said Mr. Sharon should resign as prime minister, while 43 percent said he should stay on.

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