ISRAEL Sharon pushes withdrawal

Sharon has been abandoned by traditional hard-line supporters.
JERUSALEM (AP) -- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pledged today to push ahead with his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip even after his Likud party rejected his efforts to join forces with moderates who back the proposal.
Sharon will still try to build a "strong, stable coalition," a government official said on condition of anonymity, despite his hard-line party's vote Wednesday against teaming up with the center-left Labor Party.
Abandoned by traditional hard-line supporters because of his plan to withdraw from all Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements in September 2005, Sharon launched coalition talks with the Labor Party. Labor would ensure Sharon a majority for the plan both in his Cabinet and in parliament, something he doesn't have now.
'Determined to continue'
"The prime minister is determined to continue with the disengagement plan and the diplomatic process and he will try to build a stable coalition," according to a statement from Sharon's office.
The vote at a Likud Party convention Wednesday was not close, with 60 percent in favor of banning Labor. The opposition party's inclusion was needed to assure Cabinet support of the Gaza withdrawal next year.
Even Sharon's own proposal, to allow him to negotiate with all the Zionist parties, was narrowly voted down. A defiant Sharon had indicated he would ignore the results, but even supporters wondered it the battle-scarred political infighter would succeed.
The votes could stall or even scuttle the Gaza withdrawal, despite Sharon's defiance. The Cabinet must vote on each stage that involves evacuation of settlements, and Sharon would find it hard to muster a majority without Labor, because of the opposition in his own party.
Even before the vote, Sharon aides said it would not be legally binding on the prime minister.
Heckled at convention
Speaking at the convention Wednesday, Sharon was stoic in the face of loud heckling. "Likud will not disqualify or boycott anyone. Likud will conduct negotiations with all Zionist parties for expanding the coalition," he said, as opponents chanted, "Likud yes, Labor no."
However, opponents said he would not be able to approach Labor now. "Sharon cannot ignore the wishes of his party," said Likud lawmaker Michael Ratzon.
The Labor Party denounced the results, saying Likud had become a party that rejects peace, "a movement that destroys all chances to bring about an end to violence in the region." The Labor statement said "elections must be called immediately."
General elections are due anyway in 2005, and a new government would be a short-term affair. Likud-Labor coalition negotiations stalled earlier over domestic issues.
Longtime advocate
Labor strongly favors Sharon's "unilateral disengagement" plan. Labor has long advocated an Israeli pullout from Gaza and most of the West Bank for peace with the Palestinians.
On May 2, about 60 percent of Likud Party members voting in a nonbinding referendum turned down the plan -- removing all 21 settlements from Gaza and four of the 150 from the West Bank.
Ignoring that vote, Sharon fired a pro-settlement party from his coalition and saw another resign in order to ram the plan through his Cabinet, losing his parliamentary majority in the process.

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