Sharon to put new version of Gaza plan to cabinet

Ariel Sharon will take his battle for a new and probably more limited version of his disengagement plan to the cabinet amid fresh evidence that most Israelis back the proposal that was spurned by Likud members.

The Israeli Prime Minister, struggling to contain the damage of last weekend's heavy defeat for the plan in a party referendum, persuaded one of his pivotal coalition partners yesterday that he was still determined to begin withdrawing settlers from Gaza.

Tommy Lapid, the Justice Minister and leader of Shinui who has strongly attacked Likud members for rejecting the plan, withdrew his threat to leave the government after being reassured by Mr Sharon that the plan was not dead.

Mr Lapid said that Mr Sharon had agreed to a full discussion of the crisis in the cabinet and that the Prime Minister had told him that he would win the fight for approval of an altered plan. "He convinced me that he intends to continue with peace efforts, and this is a prerequisite for Shinui remaining in the government."

A government official told Associated Press that one possibility was a scaled-back withdrawal from three settlements in Gaza and two in the West Bank. The original plan envisaged the withdrawal of almost 8,000 settlers from all the settlements in Gaza, and from four small and remote settlements in the northern West Bank. But the official added: "Nothing has been decided."

The manoeuvring came as a poll in Israel's mass circulation daily Yedhiot Ahronot said that if Mr Sharon had presented his original plan to a national referendum it would have passed by 62 per cent to 32 per cent.

In Gaza early yesterday, an Israeli helicopter gunship killed two Palestinians and wounded 22 in an attack on the Khan Younis refugee camp.

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