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Sharon Has Support from Israelis, but His Own Party Deals Him Setback

Days before a make-or-break Israeli budget vote, Ariel Sharon got a drubbing — from his own Likud Party. The Likud Central Committee voted overwhelmingly Thursday to urge the party’s lawmakers to demand a referendum on the Gaza withdrawal plan, defying the prime minister.

“The Cabinet and Parliament made decisions and these decisions will be carried out,” Sharon said over catcalls from the crowd, referring to withdrawals from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank slated to begin July 20.

“I have never yielded to threats, and there is no reason or possibility that I will begin doing so now,” he said. “I will not let the extreme fringes dictate the way forward.”

Supporters of a referendum include major government players — among them Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who argue that this is the only way to show some 8,500 settlers slated for evacuation that the plan has wide Israeli backing.

“A quarter to a third of those who support disengagement also support holding a referendum,” Netanyahu said in his speech. “The prime minister says he thinks a referendum will stoke popular passions. I think the opposite, that it will bring calm.”

Thursday’s Central Committee vote had little political traction, given the lack of support for a referendum among Knesset members.

Yet, for Sharon, it raised the specter of rebellious Likud lawmakers opposing the 2005 austerity budget in a last-ditch bid to scuttle the disengagement plan.

The Knesset has set the budget ratification vote for March 17. If the $61 billion budget does not pass by the end of the month, new elections will be called.

“At this, of all times, a group of lawmakers in the Likud are planning a maneuver that would bring about the fall of the government,” Sharon said.

While polls indicate the looming withdrawals enjoy majority support among Israelis, many fear they will embolden Palestinian terrorism.

Despite Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ efforts to keep Hamas and other radical groups to a cease-fire he declared with Sharon last month, violence has simmered on.

A group of Jews visiting Joseph’s Tomb outside the West Bank city of Nablus under army guard Thursday narrowly escaped a car-bombing unscathed. A wounded terrorist from Abbas’ Fatah faction was found at the scene, after apparently detonating the device.

On Wednesday, Israeli forces uncovered a weapons lab just over the boundary in the West Bank, with a Kassam rocket ready to be fired — a harbinger, perhaps, of the sort of long-range attacks that ushered in the Gaza withdrawal.

Some right-wingers have accused Sharon of coming up with the disengagement plan in order to garner cross-partisan support for his government, or to distract from funding scandals that have dogged the prime minister and his sons.

But a Ha’aretz survey published Thursday found that most Israelis — almost 68 percent — believe Sharon sees quitting Gaza and four West Bank settlements as a matter of national importance.

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