Sharon's leadership in crisis as Likud rejects settler plan

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Ariel Sharon's political obituary was being written yesterday as opponents in Labour and his own Likud party turned their backs on the embattled Prime Minister, putting his plan for a staged withdrawal of settlers from the West Bank and Gaza Strip in jeopardy.

Ariel Sharon's political obituary was being written yesterday as opponents in Labour and his own Likud party turned their backs on the embattled Prime Minister, putting his plan for a staged withdrawal of settlers from the West Bank and Gaza Strip in jeopardy.

The Labour leader, Shimon Peres, called for a general election, suggesting that Mr Sharon was too weakened by the revolt of his Likud party to close a deal with the main centre-left opposition and form a government strong enough to implement the withdrawal.

"We cannot entrust the fate of Israel to the hands of 800 to 900 people [Likud party rebels], when we see that a majority of the country unequivocally support disengagement [from Gaza] and the dismantling of settlements," Mr Peres said. "Therefore the opinion of the Labour Party today is to call for new elections and allow the people to decide."

Mr Sharon, buoyed by a Supreme Court decision not to prosecute over corruption allegations that had been hanging over him and his son, vowed to fight on with his disengagement plans, promising to assemble the "broad and stable" government he needs to succeed.

It has been a traumatic week for the "bulldozer" of Israeli politics. The Likud central committee voted overwhelmingly by 843 to 612 late on Wednesday night against co-opting the Labour opposition into the coalition to allow him to push through his withdrawal blueprint against the will of many Likud representatives. By a smaller margin of only five votes, delegates also rejected a request by Mr Sharon to allow him to negotiate with "any Zionist party". The triumphant rebels, led from within the cabinet by Uzi Landau, a minister without portfolio, were convinced they had sunk the disengagement plans.

But the Prime Minister's spokesman, Ra'anan Gissin, said Mr Sharon would not change his political initiative with regard to disengagement. "This process cannot be stopped. If it is not done by Sharon, it will be done by whoever succeeds him." Negotiations with Labour and the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party would probably be put on hold, he added, but they would not be terminated.

"Sharon has a political problem," he said. "He will deal with it. He will have to find ways to bring the Likud activists into the loop, but he is not going to let them dictate. No one wants elections; no one wants a split."

Should Likud split the "greater Israel" rebels would combine with smaller ultra-nationalist parties on the far right. The more flexible Likud members - including most of the MPs who are believed to have voted for Mr Sharon on Wednesday - might then link up with Labour and the centrist, anti-clerical Shinui to carry through the Gaza evacuation.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court yesterday ordered the government to produce within 30 days a statement specifying the potential ramifications of the International Court of Justice's condemnation in July of the West Bank separation barrier as a violation of international law.

The judges allowed building work to continue, but on condition that the government undertake to remove the fence and compensate the villagers if the Israeli court eventually rules against it.

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