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Right-wing ire with Sharon swells

Protesters rally in Tel Aviv against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Gaza disengagement plan on Oct. 14. (Brian Hendler)

Protesters rally in Tel Aviv against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan on Oct. 14. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM, Oct. 17 (JTA) � Israel�s deepest incursion into the Gaza Strip since the intifada began has struck a blow against Palestinian rocket crews. But even as Israel vowed to re-enter Gaza should rocket fire resume,

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was working to quell another potential crisis, this one among Israelis.

Sharon met with Yesha Council settler leaders on Sunday � three days after he and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz ordered Operation Days of Repentance to wind down � in a bid to defuse rightist rancor at the slated withdrawals from Gaza and parts of the West Bank that are at the center of his disengagement plan.

To his credit, Sharon could cite the 17-day offensive in Gaza which killed at least 44 Hamas terrorists, including eight field commanders. Yet that was little comfort to settlers who accuse his unilateralism of jeopardizing national security.

�We believe the prime minister is about to take Israel into a very dire process,� the chairman of the Yesha Council, Benzi Lieberman, told Israel Radio.

Indeed, the Yesha leaders stormed angrily out of the meeting with Sharon, saying there had been no progress and vowing to torpedo his bid to get the disengagement plan ratified in the Knesset on Oct. 26.

�We found the prime minister to be inscrutable, refusing to answer our questions and determined to bring about a rift in the nation,� said Yesha Council spokesman Yehoshua Mor-Yosef.

The specter of a crisis in Israel�s right wing prompted Education Minister Limor Livnat to call for a referendum on Sharon�s plan. Media polls suggest that some 65 percent of Israelis back the plan as a means of reducing friction with the Palestinians.

�Each side must undertake to accept the people�s will,� said Livnat, a senior member of Sharon�s ruling Likud Party. �The alternative is early elections, which, of course, no one wants.�

Plebiscites have frequently been proposed at critical junctures in Israel�s history � most recently over the Oslo peace accords and whether Jerusalem should negotiate on the return of the Golan Heights to Syria.

But they have never been adopted by any government, and there was little cause to expect Sharon would set a precedent.

�A referendum would be too expensive and time consuming, not to mention a blow to the prime minister�s democratic mandate,� said a Sharon confidant. �Israel has vowed to disengage by the end of 2005, and so it will be.�

But even on the traditional decision-making track, Sharon faces major hurdles.

Last week, the Knesset voted no confidence in the prime minister after he laid out his policies for the coming parliamentary season. That does not bode well for the Oct. 26 vote on ratifying the plan, although the no-confidence vote does not mean Sharon has to form a new government.

But Sharon has been busy trying to shore up his coalition against walkouts by right-wing partners the National Union and National Religious Party.

Two key religious parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, said last week they would consider backing disengagement if Sharon brings them into the government because the move is an attempt to spare Israeli lives.

On the other end of the political spectrum, the appeal of a Gaza pullout is that it brings Palestinian statehood a step closer.

The opposition Labor Party has tacitly provided Sharon a �safety net� in the Knesset. Even the United Arab List, a two-member Knesset faction, said it would back the plan, although another Arab party said it would oppose the measure.

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