Stunned Sharon mulls next move

Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon was pondering his options on Monday after his Likud party routed his plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip, inflicting on the premier his most stinging setback since taking office.

His crushing 20% defeat in Sunday’s internal referendum cast doubts over the future of his so-called “disengagement” plan and threatened to precipitate major political upheaval in Israel.

Addressing his party ahead of the opening of the Parliament’s summer session on Monday, Sharon repeated a statement he issued the previous night in which he warned “difficult decisions” would have to be made.

He refrained from elaborating on his strategy but in Sunday’s statement, he hinted that resigning is not an option.

“I intend to continue leading the state of Israel to the best of my understanding, conscience and public duty. This is not an easy task, however I intend to carry it through,” the statement said.

Labour chief and opposition leader Shimon Peres was swift to call for the Knesset to be dissolved and early elections to be organised.

“Whether he wants it or not, Sharon has not been granted a mandate by his party and the nation should have the right to express itself on the issue. We propose dissolving the Knesset and holding elections,” Peres told his supporters.

After the first exit polls left no doubt of the extent of his defeat on Sunday, Sharon went straight into consultations with his advisers and members of his Cabinet on what measures to take.

His deputy and most faithful ally in the months-long campaign for the “disengagement” plan, Ehud Olmert, said on Sunday night that pressing on with the removal of the 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza remains “the only option”.

The White House also issued a statement to support Sharon as he faces one of the most serious political crises since taking office in March 2001.

“Our own view has not changed: the president welcomed Prime Minister Sharon’s plan to withdraw settlements from Gaza and a part of the West Bank as a courageous and important step toward peace,” the statement said.

The Israeli press was aghast following the landslide victory of the plan’s opponents, who led a more aggressive campaign that was largely organised by the settlers themselves.

The Haaretz daily described the result of the referendum as “humiliating” for Sharon, but as all observers agreed that the hard-nosed premier will not resign, Israeli newspapers stressed that he will have to show strong leadership ability.

“Ariel Sharon knows it.
His hour of leadership has come,” the Maariv wrote, stressing that one focus will be to salvage Washington’s so far indefectible support.

Editorialists suggested that United States President George Bush, whose enthusiastic backing of the plan was celebrated by Sharon as a significant diplomatic coup, will hesitate to put his international credibility on the line next time around.

Sharon has stressed that Israelis need to realise that the whole of biblical Palestine cannot be under Israeli control without incurring a huge human, financial and political cost.

But settlers and members of the nationalist right wing have accused Sharon—the architect of Israel’s settlement policy over decades—of “letting his children down”.

Aware that Sharon is showing no sign of renouncing his plan, settlers maintained a tough stance on the ground, as four Jewish families moved into flats in a West Bank suburb of east Jerusalem.

The 20 settlers were escorted by police and other settlers into their new homes, acquired from Palestinians by organisations whose goal is the “judaisation” of the inner rim around Jerusalem’s Old City.

And in the Gaza Strip settlement of Neve Dekalim, defiant settlers laid the cornerstone for a new neighbourhood, settler sources said.

Celebrations of the victory over their former champion were marred by the killing on Sunday at a crossing point into the Gaza Strip of a pregnant settler and her four daughters.

The deadliest attack against Gaza settlers in months sent shockwaves in the ultra-nationalist camp, even as Likud members were casting their ballots on a plan that calls for evacuation, and is thought to have had an impact on the ballot.

The Israeli army staged a raid into the Gaza Strip village from which the attackers launched their operation before being eventually gunned down.

Palestinian security sources said no less than 18 houses were demolished.

Israeli helicopters also staged a rare air raid in the West Bank on Sunday, killing four wanted militants from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.—Sapa-AFP

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