Sharon, Facing Criticism, Plans Vote on Gaza Pullout

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 31-Mar-04 | Author: James Bennet| Source: The New York Times

TEL AVIV, March 30 — Faced with sharpening opposition from his coalition partners and catcalls from leaders of Likud, his own rightist party, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon moved Tuesday to shore up his political base by agreeing to hold a party vote on his plan to withdraw from some Israeli-occupied territory.

At a deeply unsettled moment in Israeli politics, Mr. Sharon was greeted with applause and boos at a meeting here of Likud's governing body, its central committee.

The members were pleased with Israel's killing last week of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas. But they were angry or confused about the withdrawal plan and worried about Mr. Sharon's legal difficulties, including a corruption inquiry that could lead to an indictment.

"We are at a crossroads," said Dubi Sandrov, 55, a settler from the northern West Bank. "Things are very difficult, both the situation itself and the way we feel."

Mr. Sharon led Likud to its present dominance in Israeli politics. He was introduced with praise for the killing of the Hamas leader, whom the Israeli government called a terrorist mastermind. But he had to raise his voice to be heard over the clamor of critics and supporters in an auditorium of the Palace of Culture here.

"We shall have to take very difficult decisions," Mr. Sharon warned, in a reference to his withdrawal plan. He added that the prime minister bore "the supreme authority," but that "major decisions of this kind should be brought to a democratic vote."

He said he would hold a referendum among the party's 200,000 members. The vote will not take place until after a scheduled meeting on April 14 between Mr. Sharon and President Bush.

Mr. Sharon's action came as the United States stepped up its own efforts to win international support for Israel's proposed pullout. Mr. Bush's top aides on the Middle East met Tuesday with senior envoys from the European Union, the United Nations and Russia in Brussels to discuss ways they can all encourage Mr. Sharon to proceed with the withdrawal, while continuing talks with the Palestinian leadership, according to a European diplomat familiar with the Brussels session.

The most fervent members of Likud dream of a Greater Israel that includes the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the lands Israel occupied in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. Unlike Mr. Sharon, the party officially rejects the creation of a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River.

Some of the central committee members gave voice to a feeling of betrayal. "When the old Arik takes responsibility for destroying Ahmed Yassin, the terrorist, we have nothing to do but clap and say, `Go for it, Arik,' " said Gidon Ariel, 40, a marketing consultant from the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim, using Mr. Sharon's nickname. "But when he talks about withdrawal, I know what our enemies are hearing: Terrorism works."

Saying the Palestinian leadership is not now a partner for a peace agreement, Mr. Sharon is seeking to create what he calls more secure boundaries by withdrawing settlers and soldiers unilaterally from most or all of the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank. He says Israel otherwise risks eventually losing more of the territory in some sort of internationally imposed agreement.

To blunt the attacks of his right-wing critics, Mr. Sharon wants Mr. Bush's agreement to the plan, including support for Israel to retain some large blocks of settlements in the West Bank.

An adviser to Mr. Sharon said that the prime minister could not be certain of winning the referendum, but that support from Mr. Bush would clearly help. "I think it's going to be a tough battle," he said, adding that it would be at least a month before the vote could be held. "And God knows what could happen in that month," he added.

Mr. Sharon is newly vulnerable because Israel's attorney general, Menachem Mazuz, is weighing whether to indict him in a bribery investigation. That process is likely to take more than a month. Two far-right government ministers seized on the issue on Tuesday to argue that he should not go to Washington until the matter was resolved.

Mr. Sharon, who has not been charged with a crime, is suspected of accepting bribes from an Israeli developer. An indictment would probably bring down his government, Israeli politicians and political analysts say.

"For the prime minister's honor, he shouldn't go to the United States in a situation where his political future is uncertain," Effie Eitam, the housing minister and the leader of the National Religious Party, told Israel radio.

Within Likud, Mr. Sharon's legal predicament appears to have earned him more sympathy than suspicion. Likud members have traditionally nursed a sense of grievance against Israel's social establishment — the source, members appeared to think, of Israel's prosecutors.

"It's character assassination," Avi Amit, 29, an employment counselor, said of the furor in the Israeli news media over the corruption inquiry. He said he supported a withdrawal from Gaza, though not the West Bank. He rejected any suggestion that Mr. Sharon, a general turned politician, had broken the law.

"My father raised me on Sharon, on the wars, on the victories," he said. "It's not serious to say that a man like this, a real hero of Israel, would do something like this."

Others rejected any withdrawal. Yoav Bloom, 43, of Tel Aviv, said he had been a member of Likud since he was 17. But he said he would not remain a member if the referendum passed, as he believed it would. The general membership of Likud is on the whole not as far right as its 3,000 elected representatives on the central committee.

"I will not be a member of a movement that will give up one stone of the state of Israel," Mr. Bloom said.

Steven R. Weisman contributed reporting from Washington for this article.