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Sharon wont resign after gaza defeat { May 3 2004 }

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Sharon Won't Resign After Gaza Defeat
Monday May 3, 2004 3:31 PM


Associated Press Writer

JERUSALEM (AP) - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Monday he will rework his plan for pulling out of Gaza and four West Bank settlements in an effort to salvage the proposal following its resounding defeat in a ruling party referendum.

Sharon told a meeting of lawmakers from his Likud Party that he would submit the new version to the government and the parliament for approval, according to officials who attended the meeting. ``I want to say in the clearest fashion there will be another plan that I will come up with,'' Sharon said, according to the officials. ``I will come up with a plan that will get wider support.''

With a turnout of only half the 193,000 Likud members, 60 percent voted against the ``disengagement plan,'' leaving Sharon politically weakened and scrambling for an alternative. ``Crushing defeat,'' read a headline in the Maariv daily.

Sharon said Monday that he ``respects'' the outcome of the vote but would not drop the idea of a withdrawal. He defended his plan as the best way to get security for Israelis in the absence of peace moves.

He also said it would diffuse international pressure on Israel for greater concessions and help Israel escape the demographic problem that Palestinians will soon outnumber Jews in the area including the West Bank, Gaza and Israel.

``The question is should Israel lead or be led, does time work in our favor or against us, and if what we are proposing could be accepted in the world,'' Sharon was quoted as saying at the meeting. ``I intend to present a plan to the government and the (parliament) that will push forward Israel's positions''

Sunday's voting was marred by violence. Palestinian gunmen killed a pregnant Gaza settler and her four daughters, ages two to 11, in an ambush on her car as she was en route from Gaza to Israel. Israel killed four Palestinian militants in the West Bank and destroyed a Hamas-affiliated radio station in Gaza in missile strikes.

Support for the plan lagged in the polls for several days, but analysts said the Gaza shooting attack and the low turnout gave a further boost to opponents.

The disengagement plan envisions an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, home to 7,500 settlers, and the evacuation of four small West Bank settlements by the end of 2005, along with the completion of a West Bank separation barrier.

The Bush administration said it would consult with Sharon on what to do next. ``The president welcomed Prime Minister Sharon's plan to withdraw settlements from Gaza and a part of the West Bank as a courageous and important step toward peace,'' White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

Palestinian leaders, who have dismissed Sharon's unilateral plan as an attempt to tighten Israel's hold over large parts of the West Bank, played down Sunday's vote as an internal Israeli matter.

Ordinary Palestinians didn't pay much attention. ``If he (Sharon) had won, do you really think the war would end and tomorrow we would have peace?'' said Khalil Abu Ali, 48, a restaurant owner in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Early Monday, a 16-year-old Palestinian boy from Beit Lahia in Gaza died from Israeli gunshot wounds suffered on Saturday, hospital officials said. The boy, Khaled Abu Olba, was shot after entering a military zone, residents said. Also, 17-year-old Ahmad al-Khawaldi died in Gaza after he was shot in the head last month while throwing stones at Israeli soldiers.

Sharon's party allies warned that Likud was increasingly becoming less appealing to moderate Israeli voters and could get hurt in the next election. Opinion polls have shown a majority of Israelis support the withdrawal plan.

Justice Minister Yosef Lapid of the centrist Shinui Party noted that the number of voters in the referendum amounted to roughly 1 percent of the Israeli population. ``They shouldn't decide the fate of the country,'' he told Israel Radio.

Vice Premier Ehud Olmert, a Sharon confidant, said disengagement is inevitable and the prime minister is determined to move forward.

Opponents celebrated their victory. Likud members chose ``a no-compromise fight against terrorism'' over ``loyalty to the prime minister,'' Cabinet minister Natan Sharansky said.

The low turnout might help Sharon undermine the legitimacy of the result, analysts said. The referendum was not legally binding.

The referendum originally was conceived as a way to force hard-line ministers, including Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to support Sharon. With the party opposed, it is unlikely Sharon would get a majority in his Cabinet.

The prime minister could rearrange his Cabinet by bringing in the moderate Labor Party, a move that could split Likud. Labor has said it would join only if the attorney general clears Sharon in two corruption probes. The rulings are expected in coming weeks.

Sharon also could opt for early elections, three years ahead of schedule. Or he could hold a national referendum, which would require special legislation that could take months to move through parliament.

The vote also might strain Sharon's relations with President Bush. Last month, the president went out of his way to help Sharon, endorsing the disengagement plan and giving the Israeli leader unprecedented assurances that in a final peace deal, Israel would not have to withdraw from all of the West Bank.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat demanded Sunday that Bush withdraw his guarantees.

In the Israeli settlements in Gaza, elation was mixed with mourning for 34-year-old Tali Hatuel and her four young daughters.

Hatuel's husband, David, wept in front of the five graves during the funeral Sunday in the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon. ``I am all alone, there is no one left,'' he said.

On Monday, Israeli settlers in Gaza began work on a new neighborhood in the Gaza settlement of Neve Dekalim. Settlers said the expansion was a response to Sharon's plan and the shooting attack.

Israeli troops also demolished 22 homes in Gaza, 14 near the site of the shooting.The demolitions left 75 people homeless, residents said.

Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, another militant group, said they killed the family to avenge the assassination of Hamas leaders by Israel last month.

In the West Bank city of Nablus, four Palestinian militants from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades were killed in an Israeli missile strike. Some 10,000 Palestinians marched in a funeral procession for the men on Monday.

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