Overwhelming rejection of Gaza pullout plan


Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank was soundly rejected by his Likud Party today, according to media polls. Palestinians have condemned the plan as a ploy by Israel to strengthen its grip on the West Bank

The news will be seen as an embarrassing defeat for Sharon on another day of bloodshed in the country. The defeat left the future of his plan of "unilateral disengagement" from the Palestinians in doubt. 

Supporters of Sharon's plan argued that the violence underscored the hopeless burden of staying in Gaza.

Opponents said any withdrawal would be seen as a reward for terror and encourage more attacks on Israelis.   Sharon initially said he would consider the vote among the 193,000 Likud members as binding, but in recent days appeared to back away from that. 

The defeat of the referendum could precipitate a major political crisis that could include a Cabinet reshuffle, a split in his party or even early elections.

Sharon even personalised the campaign in recent days, saying he considered it a vote of confidence in him and hinting he might resign if the plan was defeated. However, few believed he would quit. 

Likud members make up only 4% of the Israeli electorate, and the low turnout - less than 50% - among even that fraction of voters could give Sharon room to ignore the referendum's results.

Telephone polls conducted by Israel 's three main television stations gave opponents of the plan a lead of between 12 and 24 points. 

"This is not good for the country and a terrible day for the party," Likud minister Tzipi Livni told Channel 10 TV.

Sharon has said his plan to evacuate Gaza's 21 settlements and four small West Bank settlements was vital - in the absence of other peace moves - to reducing the ongoing violence with the Palestinians and defusing international pressure on Israel .

"Those who vote 'no' today will bring about an increase in terror," Sharon said before the polls closed.

The US and the EU had welcomed the plan, which would be the first time Israel has ever uprooted settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, areas it captured during the 1967 Mideast war.

Palestinians have the plan with suspicion, angry that they were sidelined and worried that Israel was using the plan to cement its hold over much of the West Bank. Palestinians and the international community view settlements in both areas as illegal.