Likud humiliates PM in Gaza poll

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 03-May-04 | Author: Haaretz Staff and Agencies| Source: Ha'aretz

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last night said he had no intention of resigning after his Likud Party's crushing defeat of his Gaza disengagement plan in yesterday's referendum.

The results, with some 32,000 votes - about half of the total - counted at press time, were 37.5 percent in favor and 61.7 percent against.

In a statement issued just before midnight, Sharon said that while he regretted the outcome of the vote, he would respect it and would now consult with his faction and his coalition partners on his next moves. He convened a meeting of his closest advisors last night.

"I know that much of the Israeli public supports my plan. I know they feel, as I do, disappointment with the results of the referendum. We have difficult days before us in which difficult decisions have to be made," he said.

The referendum defeat came on the heels of a terror attack in the Gaza Strip yesterday morning in which a pregnant Gush Katif woman and her four daughters were killed. Analysts said this probably contributed to the unexpectedly large margin by which Sharon's plan was defeated.

At the end of last week, polls gave the plan's opponents only a slight edge over supporters, but independent exit polls conducted by four major media outlets yesterday all showed the plan losing by a double-digit margin. Channel 2's poll, which showed the narrowest gap, had the opponents winning 56 percent to 44 percent.

Polls by Channel 10 and Israel Radio showed 59-60 percent against and 40-41 percent in favor, while Channel 1's poll found a gap of 62 percent to 38 percent. The real results available last night indicated the even larger gap of 34.6 percent to 64.5 percent.

However, voter turnout was low, to some extent dampening the significance of the results. Only 41 percent of the Likud's 193,000 members, or some 75,000 people, bothered to vote.

Sharon was joined last night by his bureau chief, Dov Weisglass; his son, MK Omri Sharon; his public relations consultants, Eyal Arad and Reuven Adler; and Uri Shani, a former senior Likud functionary. The group was set to discuss questions ranging from what the results imply about Sharon's political future - especially since Sharon openly declared the referendum to be a vote of confidence in his leadership - to damage control vis-a-vis U.S. President George Bush, who gave the disengagement plan strong backing.

The U.S. administration issued no official response to the results last night, but unofficially, White House officials played down the importance of a mere "party poll" and diplomatic sources in Washington said it would probably continue to back the plan, if less enthusiastically, and has no intention of submitting an initiative of its own.

Industry Minister Ehud Olmert, the leading supporter of disengagement in Sharon's government, tried to put a brave face on the defeat, saying last night that Sharon would move forward with the plan despite the referendum results. But the decisive loss means that Sharon may no longer have a cabinet majority for the plan, as leading Likud ministers, including Benjamin Netanyahu, Limor Livnat and Silvan Shalom, will almost certainly refuse to back a plan their party has voted down.

Moreover, any attempt to push the plan through now might well split the Likud. Yet failure to do so could cost Sharon his biggest coalition partner, Shinui, which is demanding that the plan be implemented despite the outcome of the referendum.

Other alternatives Sharon might choose include calling early elections, trying to obtain support from his party for a scaled-back version of the plan, or revamping his coalition to replace two rightist parties, National Union and the National Religious Party, with Labor.

Labor chairman Shimon Peres implied that Labor might be amenable to such a move when he publicly urged Sharon last night to ignore the referendum results and implement the disengagement anyway. A minority cannot obligate the majority, he said, and failure to implement the plan will cause tremendous damage to the country.

Meanwhile, Sharon's associates have already tapped a scapegoat for the defeat - Netanyahu. He announced he supported the plan but refused to mobilize his many supporters in the Likud to work for it.

Terror in Gaza

The terror attack in Gaza occurred at the Kissufim Junction, when Tali Hatuel, 34, and her four daughters - Hila, 11, Hadar, 9, Roni, 7, and Merav, 2 - were driving from their home in the Gush Katif settlement bloc to the polling station where they intended to campaign against the disengagement plan.

Two gunmen opened fire at the car, apparently injuring Tali enough to make her pull over. When she did, the gunment came to the car and killed the children at point-blank range. Another civilian and two soldiers were also injured in the attack and security forces killed the terrorists.