RAMAT EFAL, Israel, April 25 (JTA) ï¿½ The large living room is packed with opinionated Likud Party members, sitting in white plastic chairs that have been assembled to accommodate the crowd. As the April 22 meeting in this upscale Tel Aviv suburb heats up, each member seems to have a different opinion on Prime Minister Ariel Sharonï¿½s plan to withdraw Israeli settlements and troops unilaterally from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.
The group of some 50 party faithful have gathered to hear Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz stump for Sharonï¿½s disengagement plan ahead of a May 2 Likud referendum on the plan. The members represent Likud branches from central Israel.
ï¿½This is no regular meeting; it carries real weight, for we are on the verge of a difficult decision,ï¿½ said Shabbatai Yosef, of Likudï¿½s Holon branch.
Passage of the referendum had seemed increasingly likely following Sharonï¿½s triumphant return from Washington two weeks ago with a letter in hand from President Bush supporting the plan. Bush also said in the letter that Israel should be able to keep some West Bank land in a future peace deal and that Palestinian refugees from Israelï¿½s 1948 War of Independence should not be allowed to return to Israel.
But after an initial swing toward Sharonï¿½s plan from some of the partyï¿½s leaders who were ambivalent about the idea, the partyï¿½s 200,000 members appeared sharply divided.
A poll in Haï¿½aretz last week showed that 47 percent of Likud voters who planned to cast a ballot in the referendum were in favor of the pullout plan, with 40 percent against. A poll of Likud members generally showed an even closer split, with 44 percent for the plan and 40 percent against.
If the referendum passes, Sharon will have succeeded for the first time in committing Likud ï¿½ the party that historically has championed the cause of Greater Israel ï¿½ to the withdrawal of settlements from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
But the Palestinians have rejected the plan, saying Israel will use it as an excuse not to withdraw from sizeable parts of the West Bank.
There was little consensus at the membersï¿½ meeting.
Yitzhak Dadosh, from Or Yehuda, said opinion on the plan was split even within his home. His wife was for the plan; he is against.
Carmel Shamah, who heads the Ramat Gan branch of Likud, urged his fellow party members to vote for the plan.
ï¿½It is not an easy plan, and I was personally against it before we saw the letter from President Bush, and then my opinion changed,ï¿½ he said.
A man from Herzliya who identified himself as Avigdor said that if Likud votes for the plan, the party will have lost its ideology.
But Mofaz, echoing sentiments expressed by those in favor of the disengagement plan, said building Jewish settlements in Gaza is a historic mistake, and that ideology is positive only as long as it served the interests of the country.
Mofaz is one of several key Likud officials who has heeded Sharonï¿½s call to help garner support for the disengagement plan.
ï¿½Because we are strong, we can bring forward a policy that will change the current reality,ï¿½ Mofaz told the group.
Carrying out the plan, he said, would help ensure a Jewish majority in the Jewish state. Furthermore, he said, a border with Gaza would be defensible, and in withdrawing from Gaza, Israel would create a new reality that eventually could lead to an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In a move that may be an indication of shifting political winds, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Limor Livnat ï¿½ both of whom opted to support Sharonï¿½s plan only after Bushï¿½s endorsement of it in mid-April ï¿½ told Sharon on Sunday that they would not help campaign for support for the plan among Likudï¿½s members.
Cabinet minister Ehud Olmert warned that the referendum could fail if senior ministers do not actively campaign for it among the Likud electorate.
Sharonï¿½s staff is stepping up its public relations campaign for the plan with a new warning: Those who vote against the plan will bear responsibility if the Likud-led government falls and a new left-of-center coalition rises in its wake.
Meanwhile, Israeli political analysts say Sharonï¿½s fresh threats against Yasser Arafat are part of the prime ministerï¿½s strategy to woo undecided Likud voters. Sharon told Israeli television last Friday that he no longer feels bound by a pledge to the United States not to harm the Palestinian Authority president. The Bush administration has told Sharon that it believes his commitment not to harm Arafat still stands.
ï¿½Sharon voices his arrogant threats as he winks knowingly to the Likud members: He is warming up to their rowdy temperament in order to guarantee their support for his disengagement plan,ï¿½ columnist Uzi Benziman wrote in Sundayï¿½s edition of Haï¿½aretz.
Olmert said there is no imminent plan to kill Arafat.
ï¿½Prime Minister Ariel Sharon does not intend to carry something out this week, or today or tomorrow,ï¿½ Olmert told Israeli Army Radio on Sunday.
In Haifa, Likud leaders said support for the disengagement plan is strong. That shows, they said, that the Likud rank and file is more centrist than the partyï¿½s national leadership, which includes strong opponents of the disengagement plan.
Opponents say pulling out of Gaza sets the dangerous precedent of Israel withdrawing under Palestinian terrorist fire. They also are opposed ideologically to withdrawal from Gaza or the West Bank because they consider them parts of the biblical Land of Israel.
Itzhack Regev, a Haifa City Council member from the Likud Party, said, ï¿½Our feeling is that most people in the country want to disassociate from the Palestinians because they managed to ruin good feelings with the terror attacks.ï¿½
In Jerusalem, Likud members appear more divided, said Yaron Zitgiyahu, who heads an organization of Likud members who are vendors at Mahane Yehuda, Jerusalemï¿½s open-air food market.
He said he will vote for the plan and noted, ï¿½Those who will decide for it are more vocal. Those who are against it are keeping more silent, trying to figure out which way to vote.ï¿½
Bushï¿½s support for Sharonï¿½s plan has had a significant impact on Likud opinion on the plan, he said.
ï¿½What Bush said shows that Sharon is first rate when it comes to security, and that the plan of disengagement will not weaken us but strengthen us,ï¿½ Zitgiyahu said.
JTA correspondent Dan Baron in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.