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Sharon seeks Likud party approval for withdrawal plan

Convention agrees to referendum on Gaza Strip pullout

JERUSALEM -- Beset by a bribery scandal, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday went before a gathering of his Likud party to endorse a referendum among members on his Gaza Strip withdrawal proposal.

Sharon said at the Likud convention in Tel Aviv that he would abide by the results of the vote among the more than 200,000 members of the right-leaning party, whose leaders have been divided on the pullout. No date was set for the referendum, which was approved by delegates at the meeting earlier in the evening. But it is expected to follow Sharon's planned visit next month with President Bush in Washington.

Sharon said his plan to separate unilaterally from the Palestinians was necessary because Israel had no partner on the Palestinian side with whom to negotiate peace.

"Accepting the democratic decision, as reached by the widest forum, is the right way to maintain unity within the Likud, also at times of difficult decisions," said Sharon, the party's leader.

"It is allowed to have differences of opinion before the decision is reached, but we must stand united once it is reached."

The prime minister has yet to provide details of the withdrawal plan, which would call for evacuating most or all of the 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and perhaps a handful of sites in the West Bank.

The idea of a withdrawal from Israeli settlements has stirred opposition among Sharon's right-wing allies, including hawkish members of Likud, which historically has promoted the establishment of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Some party members heckled Sharon during the first minutes of his speech.

The referendum was seen as a way for Sharon to build momentum, and party unity, behind his proposal before taking it to the Cabinet and parliament for approval, as he has promised.

Public-opinion polls have suggested strong backing nationwide for evacuating the Gaza settlements. Sharon has portrayed the pullout as a way to reduce friction with the Palestinians and to free the Israeli army from defending the 7,500 Jewish residents in Gaza, who live among about 1.3 million Palestinian.

The referendum plan is occurring as Israel's attorney general is considering whether to issue an indictment against Sharon on allegations that he took bribes from a land developer.

The state prosecutor in the case on Sunday recommended filing charges against the prime minister, but the final decision will be made by Attorney General Menachem Mazuz.

By moving ahead with a party vote despite the criminal case, Sharon may be seeking to ensure that his withdrawal plan survives even if his government does not. Strong rank-and-file party support for the idea would make it easier for a successor from the Likud to proceed.

In the meantime, Sharon plans to travel to Washington for an April 14 meeting with Bush that will focus on the prime minister's disengagement plan.

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