Sharon Won’t Put Gaza Plan to a Vote

Times Staff Writer

Buoyed by a key win in parliament, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in interviews published Wednesday that he would not submit his Gaza Strip withdrawal plan to a national vote even though four Cabinet ministers have threatened to resign.

“My opinion on the matter of a national referendum is known. There will be no referendum on [withdrawal], as the ones behind this initiative are interested in sabotaging” the plan, Sharon told Israel’s biggest-circulation daily newspaper, Yediot Aharonot.

Sharon’s comments came after the parliament, or Knesset, approved his plan Tuesday night to remove Jewish settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip and a portion of the West Bank.


Polls show that the withdrawal, scheduled for next summer, enjoys broad support among the Israeli public but has created deep divisions within Sharon’s right-leaning Likud Party. Although the measure passed by a 67-45 margin, nearly half of the 40-member Likud faction voted no.

After the tumultuous two-day Knesset debate, there was little overt politicking on the issue Wednesday as Israel continued a somber commemoration of the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

A law student who opposed an interim peace agreement with the Palestinians gunned down Rabin during a rally. Israeli officials have expressed fears that Jewish extremists might attempt to kill Sharon or carry out some other violent act to block the removal of Jews from land that many settlers view as their biblical birthright.

At a memorial ceremony in Jerusalem attended by Sharon, Dalia Rabin said recent calls to resist the pullout echoed the incendiary rhetoric that preceded her father’s death.

“Once again, there is bloody writing on the wall,” she said, adding, “Mr. Prime Minister, today we are with you.... We have suffered the stinging blow of incitement. We fear for you, and for this country.”

For his part, the prime minister apologized for any role his sharp criticism of Rabin’s peace efforts might have played in stoking public anger during the weeks before the assassination.


“The differences were never personal, and always served the cause -- matters of the country’s fate. And if, in the heat of the genuine argument, things were said that should not have been said, I regret it,” Sharon said.

During Tuesday’s debate and vote, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led a group of four Likud ministers in a last-minute bid to force Sharon to put the pullout proposal to a nationwide vote. But the effort failed, and they voted in favor of the plan.

Afterward, Netanyahu announced that the four ministers would quit the government in two weeks if Sharon did not call a referendum. The pro-settler National Religious Party also threatened to abandon the shaky ruling coalition, which lacks a parliamentary majority.

Proponents of a referendum say such a vote would allow Israelis to weigh in on the controversial plan and reduce chances for civil strife. Sharon has said such a vote would take months to prepare and might prove divisive.

The prime minister insisted that the threats of resignation would not sway him.

“I will never give in to pressures and threats and not accept any ultimatums,” Sharon was quoted as telling the daily Haaretz newspaper after the Knesset decision.

Netanyahu said Tuesday that his demand for a referendum was aimed at preventing a Likud split and broader societal rifts:


“We have no interest in toppling anybody or impeaching anybody,” the finance minister said. “We have an interest to have a referendum in order to prevent a chasm in the society.”

But many Israeli commentators derided Netanyahu on Wednesday, saying he hurt his standing by appearing to engage in a maneuver of political self-interest at a decisive moment for Israel. Netanyahu, a former prime minister who is Sharon’s most likely challenger within Likud, has been cool toward the settlement evacuation but never formally opposed it.

“Yesterday was one of the most destructive days for Netanyahu’s dubious leadership,” wrote Ben Caspit in a news analysis in the daily Maariv.

Sharon’s plan, which faces more government votes before it can be carried out, calls for evacuating all 21 Gaza settlements, with about 8,000 Jewish residents, and four others in the West Bank that hold a few hundred inhabitants.