Ex-ally calls Sharon 'disloyal' and warns of Israeli civil war

The political instability triggered by Ariel Sharon's decision to withdraw 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip deepened yesterday when one of his closest erstwhile allies told activists in the ruling Likud Party that Mr Sharon was "not loyal to the land of Israel" and warned of a potential "civil war".

The political instability triggered by Ariel Sharon's decision to withdraw 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip deepened yesterday when one of his closest erstwhile allies told activists in the ruling Likud Party that Mr Sharon was "not loyal to the land of Israel" and warned of a potential "civil war".

The calculated attack by Reuven Rivlin, the Speaker of the Knesset, came as Tommy Lapid, the Justice Minister, hinted that rabbis urging soldiers to refuse orders to evacuate settlers could face prosecution for sedition. Mr Lapid said: "I fear there is a risk of bloodshed. I hope it does not spill over into civil war."

In his implicit invitation to the Likud Central Committee to reconsider the Israeli Prime Minister's fitness to lead his party, Mr Rivlin declared in a letter to its 3,000 members that the plan to disengage from Gaza "arouses horror" and warned of the "delegitimisation" of "the Zionist, pioneering public".

Mr Rivlin, for many years a friend as well as a loyal supporter of Mr Sharon, accused him and other ministerial proponents of the disengagement plan of betraying the "principles of Likud" by his planned evacuation of settlers from part of the territory seized by Israel in the Six Day War in 1967.

The ferocity of the argument had earlier intensified when Mr Lapid attacked senior rabbis who have recommended insubordination by religious soldiers commanded to evacuate settlers who refuse to leave Gaza. "We have reached the outer limits of our patience with statements that could pose a danger to public security," he said.

The remarks by Mr Lapid followed an address to lawyers the previous night in which he issued a warning to "those who spread sedition among the religiously observant and risk bringing about civil war".

Asked whether prosecutions were possible, he said that after the murder of the prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995, which was preceded by similar calls, "we must observe the boundary between acceptable and criminal statements". Mr Lapid is leader of the secular Shinui Party, but moderate rabbis have also come out strongly against the call on soldiers to disobey orders.

The Likud Central Committee is the body that selects party candidates before the country goes to the polls. Mr Sharon and others have hinted that the turbulence in Israeli politics may lead to elections. Normally endorsement of an incumbent leader would be a formality, but the committee could be asked to remove Mr Sharon, with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Finance Minister and a disengagement opponent, a likely alternative.

Mr Sharon is widely expected to win next Tuesday's Knesset vote on the plan, but Mr Rivlin's remarks underline the deepening divisions within Likud. Some of Mr Sharon's advisers, while predicting that he will succeed in forming a coalition of Likud with Labour to bypass his rebels, have not ruled out the possibility that if the ruling party of the right were to be irrevocably split, he could head a breakaway group of what would be the Israeli political centre, appealing to the majority of the Israeli public who back withdrawal from Gaza.

Tzipi Livni, the Immigration Minister and a close ally of Mr Sharon, said that Mr Rivlin's comments served to exacerbate the split in Likud. Mr Rivlin and other opponents of disengagement in the party "are starting a snowball that I don't think they'll be able to stop".

The newspaper Ha'aretz recently carried a leaked report showing ministries and the army have spent large sums sustaining the settlements that Mr Sharon plans to dismantle.

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