Sharon rejects demands for referendum on Gaza

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 04-Mar-05 | Author: Greg Myre| Source: International Herald Tribune

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon looks on as Likud party members show their votes in favor of a referendum to decide about his Gaza disengagement plan.
JERUSALEM Heckled and booed by his own party, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel firmly rejected calls Thursday for a referendum on his Gaza withdrawal plan despite a renewed push by the party's executive committee and leading figures in his cabinet.

"I will not let the extreme fringes dictate our path," said Sharon, who endured shouts throughout a speech delivered in a Tel Aviv auditorium to the Central Committee of his rightist Likud Party.

"We will respond with severity and forcefully to violence, disobedience and incitement," Sharon said, only to be greeted with chants of "Resign! Resign!"

Shortly after Sharon spoke, the Central Committee voted overwhelmingly for a nonbinding resolution calling on Likud members in Parliament to propose a national referendum on the Gaza pullout. The vote was by a show of hands, and no figures were given. The committee has about 3,000 members, but many were not present.

The raucous atmosphere reflected the impassioned opposition Sharon faces from his own party loyalists and other rightist Israelis as he prepares to evacuate the more than 8,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza this summer, along with several hundred in the West Bank.

However, the committee's action has little or no chance of winning parliamentary approval and forcing a referendum.

Sharon has already won several key votes on his plan in Parliament and in his cabinet, and has defeated every previous attempt to derail his plan or hold a referendum.

As Likud members held up signs reading, "Sharon go home," the prime minister said, "Believe me, I feel the pain of the settlers, certainly more than many of those shouting here before me."

Sharon's last major hurdle comes this month. Parliament must approve the national budget before the end of March. Otherwise the government automatically falls, forcing new elections. That could delay the withdrawal, or perhaps even drive Sharon from power.

The budget received preliminary approval earlier this year, but opponents of the Gaza pullout know this is their last, best chance to block, or at least postpone, the withdrawal.

The budget vote is tentatively set for March 17, and Sharon is still battling to get enough votes.

Israel's finance minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, both Likud members, said at the gathering that they favored a referendum as a way to ease Israeli tensions over the plan.

"I have no doubt that a national referendum is the means perhaps the only means to stop the major internal danger that threatens us," Netanyahu said. "I am convinced that a referendum would calm heated spirits."

Sharon has described a referendum as a stalling tactic by opponents of the Gaza withdrawal. Opinion polls in Israel consistently show that about two-thirds of Israelis support the pullout.

In a separate development Thursday, a Palestinian car bomb exploded before dawn near a Jewish holy site in the West Bank where a large number of Jewish worshipers were arriving to pray. The attack was the latest challenge to the fragile Israeli-Palestinian truce.

A Palestinian woman and her four children in an apartment were wounded in the blast, which occurred several hundred yards from Joseph's Tomb, inside the Palestinian city of Nablus.

It was not clear whether the bomb exploded prematurely, or even if the religious shrine was the target. Palestinian militants have periodically targeted religious Jews who visit the site, often in the middle of the night, guarded by a large contingent of Israeli soldiers.