Sharon ready for referendum on scrapping settlements
Updated: 2004-02-05 09:12
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Wednesday he was prepared to hold a referendum before carrying out controversial plans to evacuate some of the Jewish settlements in occupied territories.
Sharon's plan to remove almost all settlements in the Gaza Strip has enraged settlers and their rightist patrons, putting his coalition in jeopardy, but he won rare backing from the United Nations Wednesday.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan praised the plan as "a first essential step" and said he hoped Sharon would extend it to the West Bank.
Polls show most Israelis favor scrapping Jewish enclaves exposed to a Palestinian uprising, both in Gaza and the West Bank, where Sharon plans to leave most settlements alone.
"If they want a referendum, it's a good idea," Sharon was quoted by his spokesman Raanan Gissin as saying when told two deputies of his Likud party would next week submit legislation authorizing a referendum.
Fifty-nine percent of Israelis backed a pullout from Gaza in a new poll.
Gissin said Sharon had other options if ultra-nationalist allies tried to topple his government over his stunning reversal of Israel's decades-old settlement building drive on land captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
"He can continue with this government (or) if at any time some members walk out, he can add other (partners)," Gissin said. The dovish opposition Labor Party, with 19 seats, has endorsed Sharon's Gaza plan.
Gissin said Sharon could also call early elections.
Commentators see that as unlikely since his term does not expire until 2007 and Labor, Sharon's main partner in a previous coalition, is seen as amenable to back the prime minister should he go ahead with settlement evacuation.
FRESH TALKS ON SUMMIT
Sharon has rejected criticism that he is trying to distract attention from a corruption probe of him and his family.
Palestinians seeking an independent state have welcomed the Gaza initiative from the erstwhile patron of Jewish settlements. Talks to set up a summit with his Palestinian counterpart Ahmed Qurie were resumed Wednesday, but no date has yet been set.
"The withdrawal from Gaza that has been announced by the prime minister, if it does take place, can really give us a very important moment and a new dynamic that can propel the process forward," Annan said.
But he added that "withdrawal from the West Bank will also be required if you're going to establish two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace, and really fulfil the spirit of land for peace."
Annan said he hoped the "Quartet" of Middle East mediators -- the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations -- could help Sharon implement the plan.
Jibril Rajoub, the security adviser to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, said Palestinians feared Sharon's unilateral Gaza plan might try to supersede a stalled, U.S.-backed peace plan by leaving a far greater number of settlers ensconced in their West Bank enclaves.
The "road map" envisages a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza by 2005. Qurie, who praised Sharon's plan on Tuesday, urged Israel to quit all of Gaza and the West Bank.
Sharon wants to dismantle 17 of Gaza's 21 Jewish enclaves where 7,500 heavily-guarded Jews live subject to constant attack by militants amid 1.3 million Palestinians. He proposes removing only three of the more than 120 enclaves in the West Bank.
But Israeli opposition figures, commentators and Palestinian officials have wondered whether Sharon is serious, citing what they see as a wide gap between his policy statements and acts.