Threats and ultimatums will not force me into a vote of settlements, says Sharon

Ariel Sharon yesterday insisted he would not be forced by "threats and ultimatums" into a referendum on his Gaza disengagement despite the prospect that he could lose two of his Cabinet ministers unless he agreed to it.

The warning from the Israeli Prime Minister, who has won the backing of the centre and left in Israeli politics but attracted furious opposition from the far right, came before a memorial service for his Labour predecessor Yitzhak Rabin, which Mr Sharon used as an opportunity to apologise for the right-wing hostility shown to Mr Rabin before his assassination in 1995.

In remarks which will be seen in some quarters as symbolising the realignment of politics his plan is generating, the Israeli Prime Minister - one of the most outspoken critics of Mr Rabin's pursuit of peace with the Palestinians in the 1990s - said: "If in the heat of the moment things were said that should not have been, I am so sorry."

Mr Sharon's refusal to countenance a referendum will put him even more profoundly at odds with Jewish settlers' leaders in Gaza, who are now pinning their hopes on such a referendum and came as the Palestinian leadership urged the international community to press Israel into early peace negotiations on the basis of much wider territorial concessions.

Faced with the loss of four ministers, including his leadership rival finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Limor Livnat (education), Mr Sharon declared: "I will never give in to pressures and threats and I won't accept any ultimatums. A person can change their mind from time to time but not give in to pressures and ultimatums. My position on the referendum is unchanged. I am opposed because it will lead to terrible tensions and a rupture in the public."

Amid a deepening split in the ruling Likud party - which looks increasingly likely to trigger coalition talks between Mr Sharon and Labour - Uzi Landau, the settlers' leading political champion who was sacked by Mr Sharon from his Cabinet on Tuesday night for voting against the government - vowed to continue the political struggle against the plan to withdraw from Gaza.

In a reference to what settlers see as Mr Sharon's apostasy from their cause - which he originally did more than any other single politician to promote - Mr Landau said: "The national camp has been left an orphan." But he added: "Yesterday we lost one battle, but the war is still ahead of us."

Reacting cautiously to Tuesday night's Knesset vote, Palestinian officials yesterday said there might be a "window of opportunity" for resumed peace negotiations after the US elections but warned against exaggerating the decision's impact unless it was the precursor of a much wider withdrawal. Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian Foreign Minister, said: "Obviously, if the Israelis withdraw from Gaza, the Palestinian people would be happy to see them withdraw from all of Palestine. So, if Gaza is a first step, then why not? Our only fear is ... that the Israelis intend to leave Gaza first and last."

Anwar Darkazelly, legal adviser to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, said last night: "Any withdrawal from any Palestinian territory is a good thing. But it is not an end to occupation because Israel will still control the sea, the sky, the national resources and the borders in and out."

Adding that 116 Palestinians had been killed in recent operations in Gaza - and Israel had made clear it was free to continue these after withdrawal - he said there would be no real liberation in Gaza "if Israel is still free to demolish houses and kill children there".

Meanwhile, Jewish settlers in central Gaza vowed to keep planting organic crops, which command a lucrative market in Israel and extending their homes. Their leaders have vowed passive resistance - stopping short of outright violence - to prevent the evacuation. Anita Tucker, a prominent New York-born vegetable grower in the Gush Katif settlement bloc said: "Our priority is a referendum to make sure the whole people get their say."

But while some Likud activists on the far right have warned of a "civil war", Dorit Eldar, a spokesman for Shuvi, an organisation which helps settlers to return to the Israeli side of the 1867 border, said yesterday that some settlers would now be reconsidering their plans to fight the plan after Tuesday's vote. She added: "About 50 per cent are thinking about having to go, about 40 per cent say they will use democratic means to fight the plan." The other 10 per cent, she said, were hard-core resisters "who unfortunately make all the noise".

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