Israelis back Sharon over Netanyahu in plan to remove settlers from Gaza Strip

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The Independent Online

Ariel Sharon was given strong public backing yesterday as he confronted one of his toughest tests since coming to office nearly four years ago.

Ariel Sharon was given strong public backing yesterday as he confronted one of his toughest tests since coming to office nearly four years ago.

Well over half of all voters back the Israeli Prime Minister's plan to withdraw the 7,500 Jewish settlers from Gaza, compared with only 32 per cent who support his main rival Benjamin Netanyahu's opposition to the plan, shows an opinion poll in Maariv yesterday.

The poll findings, a big boost to Mr Sharon as he struggles to whittle down a 12-11 cabinet majority against the plan, are all the more striking because support is as pronounced among voters for the ruling Likud party as among the wider public. Mr Sharon is trying to mobilise an increasingly cordial relationship with the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, in an attempt to ensure security in Gaza after any withdrawal. Mr Sharon's aides said Mr Mubarak had "stressed his willingness to help advance [the disengagement plan]" in a phone call to Mr Sharon on Monday.

Sylvan Shalom, the Israeli Foreign Minister, is due to visit Cairo on Monday to discuss with the President Egyptian plans to reinforce Palestinian Authority security in Gaza after disengagement, and, reportedly, the future of the PA President, Yasser Arafat. Mr Shalom is also an opponent of disengagement. The move was seen as indicating Mr Sharon still hopes Mr Shalom will switch sides before a cabinet vote, possibly next Sunday.

Fifty-four per cent of Likud voters say they agree more with Mr Sharon than Mr Netanyahu over the plan, suggesting a widening gap between Likud supporters and active party members who rejected the plan last month.

Mr Sharon's plan would have fared far better in a national referendum than in the party plebiscite he now admits he made a mistake by calling.

And the poll showed 61 per cent of Likud supporters, asked who they would support in a party leadership contest, preferred Mr Sharon compared to only 25 per cent for Mr Netanyahu. Popular support for Mr Sharon rather than Mr Netanyahu as Likud leader was 51 to 24 per cent.

The newspaper Haaretz yesterday secured a High Court ruling to release a paper by the former state prosecutor Edna Arbel recommending Mr Netanyahu be indicted for alleged fraud and breach of trust in the 1990s.The move was rejected in 2000 by the then attorney general, Elyakim Rubinstein.

* Sixty-two per cent of the three million Palestinians live below a poverty line of £1.96 a day, the International Labour Organisation said yesterday.

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