Israel on alert as rumours circulate of right-wing plot to assassinate Sharon

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Security around the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, and the Knesset has been further tightened in the approach to next week's vote on disengagement from Gaza that also threatens to divide sections of the army as well as Mr Sharon's own Likud Party.

Security around the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, and the Knesset has been further tightened in the approach to next week's vote on disengagement from Gaza that also threatens to divide sections of the army as well as Mr Sharon's own Likud Party.

The security services are reportedly on high alert against possible attacks on the Prime Minister, and his personal bodyguard has been augmented in an atmosphere turning increasingly volatile about next week's vote on the plan to withdraw 8,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza.

In the latest sign of growing tensions between the authorities and religious leaders on the right who oppose the plan, heads of the Hesder Yeshivas, colleges at which students combine religious studies with military service, yesterday abruptly cancelled a meeting with a senior Israeli Defence Forces general.

The long-planned meeting with Major-General Elazar Stern, head of the IDF's manpower division, would have been dominated by the recent calls by rabbis on the national religious right for soldiers to disobey orders to evacuate settlers from the Strip. The yeshiva heads said their last-minute cancellation was because "given the situation, we believe conditions are not right for this discussion".

The new blow to relations between the rabbis and senior IDF commanders came a day after Lieutenat-General Moshe Yaalon, and two senior ministers had denounced the call for refusal. General Yaalon warned in Ashdod that the "insubordination" proposed by the rabbis was " a danger to Zionism".

Yehoshua Mor-Yosef, a settlers' spokesman, said settlement schools will be closed to maximise turnout at a rally outside the Knesset next week. The settlers are conducting a highly personalised campaign against Mr Sharon for a referendum, a proposal supported by some senior Cabinet members but one which the Prime Minister is resisting. A Knesset spokeswoman said the number of visitors a Knesset member would be allowed to bring into the chamber would be cut next week from 20 to two.

Last week, Avraham Shapira, a former chief rabbi who acts as a spiritual mentor to the right-wing and pro-settler National Religious Party, claimed the Sharon plan violated Jewish law and said observant soldiers should not participate in the removal of settlers from their homes. He has been joined in his virulent opposition to the plan by two other highly prominent rabbis, one of whom, Rabbi Zvi Tau, who is regarded as particularly influential among pre-army yeshivas which prepare religious students for military service, said it was "unthinkable" for an observant soldier to remove Jews from their homes.

The veteran Labour leader Shimon Peres, recalling the ferocious onslaught on his former close ally Yitshak Rabin who had proposed peace accords with the Palestinians in the autumn of 1995 before he was shot dead by the extreme right-wing religious fanatic Yigal Amir, said this week that he was afraid someone will try to kill the Prime Minister.

The period leading up to the late Mr Rabin's assassination was similarly characterised by religious calls on soldiers to disobey orders to dismantle settlements and military bases in the occupied territories One senior government official said last night that the agitation by right-wing rabbis was "even worse now, because then the country was split 50-50 but now a clear majority supports the Prime Minister".

Polls do show that most Israelis favour Mr Sharon's plan to dismantle all 21 settlements in occupied Gaza and just four of the 120 others in the West Bank. But many Palestinians believe Israel will consolidate its occupation of the West Bank at the same time as withdrawing from Gaza, fear fuelled two weeks ago by remarks from a key Sharon lieutenant, Dov Weisglass, that disengagement would "freeze the peace process".

Although shaken by the remarks, which were followed by a "clarification" from Mr Sharon's office saying he still accepts the international "road-map" to peace but lacks a partner to pursue it, Labour is expected to vote for the plan on Tuesday. A group of actors, lawyers, former army officers and others founded an Israeli Movement for Disengagement this week, which is expected to use the commemoration of the Mr Rabin's death to demonstrate the numerical strength of support for the plan.

And Haim Topol, Israel's most internationally famous actor, and the star of Fiddler on the Roof, strongly denied an Israeli press report that he was campaigning against the plan. He told The Independent: "I'm very confused, like everyone else in the country and luckily I'm not a politician who has to tell where he stands.

"I'm an actor. My heart is with the those who spent 30-odd years [in Gaza] by the request of the government. On the other hand, I don't envy Sharon or any of the decision-makers who have to make the decisions now. It's a very confusing time and I hope they make the right decisions. I'm lucky not to have to make those decisions."

As efforts continued to bolster the chances of a pro-disengagement vote next week, Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz met Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, for the second time in a week, in hopes of getting Shas's 15 deputies to vote yes, or at least abstain. But the rabbi said he would decide only after consulting leading opponents of the plan.

Yonatan Bassi, appointed by Mr Sharon to supervise the withdrawal, said last week that a third of Gaza settlers were already reconciled to leaving their homes in return for tax-free compensation of up to $200,000.

But if, as analysts expect, Mr Sharon wins the Knesset vote, he still faces another struggle over the budget, which Labour will find more difficult to support because of the deep cuts envisaged by the Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. But the right-wing rebels over disengagement may also oppose it if, as planned, it contains financial measures needed for the withdrawal from Gaza.