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Sharon confronts party jeers over West Bank plan
( 2004-01-06 08:53) (Agencies)

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, confronting jeering rightist hard-liners in his Likud party, vowed on Monday to pursue a unilateral plan to quit some occupied land and shorten security lines against Palestinians.

Die-hard rightists repeatedly disrupted Sharon's address to a party convention, furious both with the plan and his stated preference for a negotiated solution to the Middle East conflict via a U.S.-backed "road map" plan for Palestinian statehood.

Palestinians in the West Bank city of Hebron watch Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Israeli TV during the Likud party convention in Hebron, January 5, 2004.  [Reuters]
"My disengagement plan is the best plan for our security. This is my plan and I will see it carried out," Sharon declared to the raucous gathering of Likud's Central Committee.

He reiterated that Palestinians would wind up with much less territory if Israel enacted the separation measures than if they halted suicide bombings and other violence and negotiated permanent peace through the road map.

Nationalists who dominate the 3,000-strong Central Committee but not its rank-and-file, which tends to be moderate right, have rebelled over Sharon's statements that some Jewish settlers will have to be uprooted whatever plan is put into effect.

Sharon emphasized that settlers in the West Bank were "courageous and loyal to Zionism" but had to respect the decisions of elected leaders, Israeli law and security forces.

Sharon, who founded and long championed settlements, tried to placate critics by repeating Israel "will never negotiate under fire" and "only with an end to terror will Palestinians achieve a respectable position...with the liberty they need."

Scuffles and heckling between Sharon foes and supporters marred other speeches to the convention.


Palestinian officials waved off Sharon's speech. "It contradicts facts on the ground -- more settlements, more walls. It's all about diktat instead of negotiations," Negotiations Minister Saeb Erekat told Reuters in Ramallah.

Separately, Palestinian Prime Ahmed Qurie said contacts with Israel on a possible peace summit with Sharon had been frozen. But there has been no substantive dialogue for weeks anyway.

Sharon has long sneered at his foes on the committee, which favors main Likud rival, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as insignificant because the rank-and-file elect party leaders.

Cabinet ministers asserted that far rightists posed no threat to the former general's grip on power.

But with his popularity near an all-time low because of public disgruntlement with intractable violence, Sharon was keen to defuse any revolt within the party he co-founded.

Scuffling erupted when a hard-liner raised a banner with a portrait of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and saying: "The Sharon Plan Rewards Terrorism." Sharon backers ripped it up.

Most speakers denounced Sharon's plan -- eliciting loud applause -- as a betrayal of Likud principles against vacating land seized in the 1967 war between Israel and Arab neighbors.

Committee members submitted a long list of items for discussion, including proposals to expel from the Likud any legislators who vote for a Palestinian state on occupied land, "transfer" of Palestinians to a state that they believe could be established in northern Jordan, and forcing Sharon to share power with Netanyahu. They will be put to votes next month.

Dissent also flared within Shinui, Sharon's centrist party ally. Justice Minister Yosef Lapid called for the barrier's route, which cuts deep into land Palestinians want for a state, to be reviewed lest it risk international sanctions on Israel.

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