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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 February, 2004, 18:52 GMT
Sharon backs settler referendum
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
Mr Sharon says he is committed to see the plans through
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has indicated he may call a referendum on his plans to move Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip.

"A referendum is a good thing," Mr Sharon told reporters on Wednesday.

He was speaking as members of his own Likud party began gathering signatures to block a possible unity government with the opposition Labour Party.

Mr Sharon has hinted at a grand alliance with Labour if parliament did not approve his peace proposals.

He has dismissed threats by some coalition members to bring down his government over the controversial Gaza plan - under which Israel would evacuate 17 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip within two years.

Click here to see map of Gaza settlements

He has also proposed to hand over Arab Israeli towns to the Palestinians in exchange for parts of the West Bank.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei has welcomed the plans, saying he hoped Israel would withdraw from all Palestinian areas in order to bring about a real peace.

In other developments:

  • Israeli and Palestinian officials have failed to agree details of a long-awaited summit between Mr Sharon and Mr Qurei. They are to meet again, though no date has been announced.

  • The Israeli army said it had arrested several Palestinian fugitives, including a senior member of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, in raids in the West Bank.

Party demands

Mr Sharon's backing for a referendum came as a new poll - conducted by the Dahaf Institute - suggested 59% of Israelis supported a withdrawal from Gaza, while 37% opposed it.

His announcement on Monday surprised many and Likud deputies have now urged him to consult his party over any plans - including a possible coalition with Labour.

I have no intention of being at the mercy of factions... that won't permit me to handle matters of state
Ariel Sharon
"We beseech you not to take any unilateral steps on removing legal settlements in Judea, Samaria [the West Bank] and Gaza," one group of deputies wrote in a letter to the prime minister.

"We followed you to elections, at which point this question was not on the agenda, and therefore demand that before making a cabinet decision, you bring the matter up for discussion and a vote before the party."

Transport Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the right-wing National Union - a junior partner in the governing coalition - said there was a reasonable chance the cabinet would defeat Mr Sharon's plans.

"It won't be a simple matter, but we intend to work hard to mobilise a majority," he said.

"The moment that the cabinet takes a decision on evacuating settlements, at that moment we will find ourselves on the outside," he told the Jerusalem Post newspaper.

But Mr Sharon has hinted that he may turn to Labour for support rather than remain "at the mercy of factions... that won't permit me to handle matters of state".

A settler family passes a soldier in Netzarim settlement in Gaza
About 7,500 people live in 17 Jewish settlements in Gaza
Eight Likud members of the Knesset signed a second letter to Mr Sharon warning against coalition with Labour, Israel army radio reported.

A total of 14 signatures are needed to block such a move.

Labour leader Shimon Peres - who on Tuesday was elected head of his party for another two years - has supported the Gaza plan.

"If Sharon carries out his proposal I promise him our full support in the Knesset, whatever happens along the way," said the former premier.

But he has not said if he is willing to join in a national unity government.


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