Sharon says defeat in Gaza referendum could lead to a general election

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Ariel Sharon yesterday launched a final effort to win Sunday's Likud referendum on his Gaza disengagement plan by warning that a defeat could lead to a general election.

Ariel Sharon yesterday launched a final effort to win Sunday's Likud referendum on his Gaza disengagement plan by warning that a defeat could lead to a general election.

Faced with polls predicting victory for opponents of the plan in the referendum of 193,000 party members, the Israeli Prime Minister told Channel Two: "If the disengagement plan is not approved, I believe it will lead to new elections, which would be bad for Israel and utterly superfluous, considering our economic situation."

And Israel Radio said increasingly concerned US officials were threatening to rescind the controversial concessions made by President George Bush to the Israeli Prime Minister in mid-April if the party's members voted to reject the plan.

Most polls suggest that despite predictions to the contrary, a majority of Likud members have not been swayed by the US President's acceptance that large settlement blocs could remain in Israeli hands in a final peace deal with the Palestinians ­ and that there should be no right of return by Palestinian refugees to Israel. The radio report said that Danny Ayalon, Mr Sharon's ambassador to Washington, had warned him that the administration would not understand if the plan was rejected after concessions which were widely condemned in the Arab world.

Mr Sharon said in further television interviews last night that it would create "very, very difficult conditions" for him-and his party to lead the country if Likud members voted against his plan to withdraw 8000 settlers from Gaza and a handful of small and remote settlements in the West Bank. The danger was that "we will be dragged into elections, as a result of which the Likud could be pushed out of power."

He added: "Whoever votes for the plan, supports me; whoever votes against the plan, votes against me." Lior Horev, a prime ministerial adviser, admitted on Army Radio that Mr Sharon was worried and added: "He will accept the results of the referendum, but at the same time he will use all the tools at his disposal to move the programme forward. If [Likud voters] understand this is a no-confidence vote in the Prime Minister, they will vote for it in the end."

But Uzi Landau, a leading cabinet opponent of the plan, said Likud members should not view the referendum as a vote on Mr Sharon. "We have full personal confidence in and full support for Ariel Sharon and we will continue to support him after the referendum," he said.

The UN official responsible for the welfare of Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories, Syria and Lebanon, has expressed concern about a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza without negotiations. "I would not rule out a disaster scenario," said Peter Hansen, the head of the UN Relief and Works Agency, who is based in Gaza, where 1.2 million Palestinians live.

Asked whether the Palestinians in Gaza were ready to take over, he said: "In terms of organisational skills and wherewithal they have been prepared for it for many years. But they are less prepared now than they were four or five years ago because so much of their institutional infrastructure has been smashed, bombed and broken." His agency had rebuilt more than a quarter of the 15,000 homes destroyed by Israeli attacks in a sharply rising programme of demolition since the intifada began 30 months ago. But he ruled out suggestions that the agency should take over administration of Gaza, if the Palestinian Authority collapsed after an Israeli pullout. He said the agency was severely overstretched, and restrictions on movement of staff in some cases meant people could not report to work for days.