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Sharon faces Netanyahu challenge over Gaza pullout
Updated: 2004-09-14 10:15

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon faced a surprise challenge on Monday to his plan to expedite a pullout from Gaza when Benjamin Netanyahu, his main rival in the Likud party, called for a referendum on the issue.

But Sharon won an unexpected reprieve from another quarter. A pro-settler religious party threatening to quit his coalition gave him a breathing space by voting to postpone a decision until parliament ratifies a Gaza withdrawal.

Analysts saw Netanyahu's bid, coming right after an angry rally by 70,000 opponents of the plan, as an attempt to delay a withdrawal of settlers and soldiers that the Israeli leader hopes to complete by the end of 2005.

"I propose, not as a condition, but as something I believe can preserve national unity, an accelerated referendum process in which one question will be posed: 'Do you support or oppose the government's decision for a phased disengagement?"' said Finance Minister Netanyahu, a former prime minister.

Netanyahu, Sharon's rival on the right of Likud, said he was confident Israelis, in line with opinion polls showing strong support for quitting Gaza, would vote in favor of withdrawing.

But a senior political source, who declined to be identified, said: "When Sharon examined the (possibility of a referendum), he saw it wouldn't fit into his deadline and would take at least six months to arrange."

Political sources said Sharon remained opposed to a referendum on ending Israel's 37-year-old occupation of Gaza and would stick to his intention to win cabinet and preliminary parliamentary approval by November 3 for a pullout.

Around 8,000 settlers live in hard-to-defend enclaves among 1.3 million Palestinians in the tiny coastal territory.

Pro-settler coalition partner puts off exit

The National Religious Party (NRP) threatened on Monday to leave the coalition if parliament passed a Gaza "disengagement" and if Sharon did not put the plan to a referendum.

But the motion, passed by 65 percent of central committee members, in effect meant the defeat of a hawkish proposal that called for the party to walk out if the cabinet approved any compensation for settlers, an issue on its agenda on Tuesday.

"We will continue to conduct the struggle (against the Gaza plan) from inside the government," Welfare Minister Zevulun Orlev of the NRP told Israel Radio after results were announced.

Sharon now controls 59 of parliament's 120 seats and would lose four more legislators if the NRP ends the partnership.

But his government would probably survive in the short term because he has enjoyed a safety net provided by the main opposition Labour Party, which backs a Gaza withdrawal.

Israel's military meanwhile pursued a campaign against Palestinian militants, killing three members of a group linked to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction in an air strike in the West Bank city of Jenin.

One of those killed was the local deputy leader of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, involved in a four-year-old revolt against Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank.

The Israeli army said the militant orchestrated attacks in which two Israelis as well as two Palestinians were killed.

Thousands of Palestinians shouted for revenge against Israel and gunmen fired rifles into the air at a funeral march after the Monday afternoon attack in Jenin, witnesses said.

Netanyahu spoke out with tensions soaring between Sharon, a former champion of the settlers, and nationalist hard-liners who packed a busy square in Jerusalem on Sunday night and denounced the Gaza withdrawal plan, calling Sharon a "dictator."

Hours beforehand, Sharon had accused far-right leaders of trying to spark a civil war in Israel with their calls on settlers to resist being uprooted from Gaza.

Sharon's plan commands majority backing in opinion polls.

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