Sharon Scrambling For Alternative

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is scrambling to come up with alternatives, including a possible pullout from just five Jewish settlements, after his Likud Party overwhelmingly rejected a withdrawal from all of the Gaza Strip, a senior government official said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the four would-be peacemakers who offered the "road map" Middle East peace plan are urgently seeking to reinvigorate negotiations after Likud's rejection of Sharon's plan.

Only the United States was enthusiastic in the first place about Sharon's idea. The other partners of the self-styled Quartet — the United Nations, the European Union and Russia — while aware that their joint road map to peace talks was languishing, preferred a much larger withdrawal and other changes.

"With the stalled Middle East peace plan on life support, the U.N. Quartet is meeting to try to find a face-saving alternative," said CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst Pamela Falk, "with calls to return to the 'roadmap' a likely result."

Secretary of State Colin Powell was attending the Quartet meeting, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and a group of senior European Union diplomats: Javier Solana, Chris Patten and Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen.

"It's time to begin accurate, precise and full, reciprocal implementation of the road map," said Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat. "The Likud party cannot determine the future of the Palestinians."

Half the Likud's 193,000 participated in Sunday's referendum, and 60 percent of them voted "no."

Yosef Lapid, leader of Likud's coalition partner Shinui, agreed it is absurd to give Likud members, a tiny fraction of the population, a virtual veto over matters of such vital importance.

A poll published Tuesday in the Yediot Ahronot daily said that if Sharon had presented his plan for a general referendum it would have passed by 62 percent to 32 percent. The paper did not give a margin of error.

Sharon's original plan envisioned an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, home to 7,500 settlers in 21 settlements who live amid 1.3 million Palestinians, and the evacuation of four small settlements in the West Bank by the end of 2005.

Sharon has pledged to find an alternative that would be more acceptable to his hard-line party, which his aides described as a "diet disengagement plan."

"Perhaps he'll start by just evacuating the most isolated settlements," said political analyst Gil Hoffman.

A senior government official said Sharon was considering a scaled-back withdrawal from three settlements in Gaza and two in the West Bank.

"This is one option that is being considered. Nothing has been decided," the official said on condition of anonymity. He said the prime minister was coordinating his moves with other Likud leaders and Cabinet ministers.

However, Sharon is also under pressure from a key coalition partner, the moderate Shinui Party, to push forward with his peace efforts. The main opposition Labor Party, meanwhile, is pushing for early elections.

Lapid met with Sharon on Tuesday and said the prime minister assured him he would seek to win approval for an altered disengagement plan. Lapid had threatened to take Shinui out of the coalition if there is no progress.

"He (Sharon) convinced me that he intends to continue with peace efforts, and this a prerequisite for Shinui remaining in the government," Lapid told Army Radio.

Among Shinui's demands is that the Israeli government reopen negotiations with the Palestinians. Sharon told Lapid that as long as the Palestinian Authority avoids fighting terror, there will be no negotiations with it.

Sharon said Monday he would present his new plan to parliament and to the Cabinet, but not to another party referendum.

A spokesman for Sharon told the Jerusalem Post the deadline for completing the plan would not be impacted either by the prime minister's scheduled visit to Washington in two weeks or by the attorney general's upcoming decision about whether to indict him on bribery charges.

However, that trip is now in doubt. Sources say Sharon would find it difficult to answer tough questions before coming up with an alternative to his rejected withdrawal plan.

Sharon had been scheduled to address a conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a Jewish lobbying group. President Bush is scheduled to speak at the conference as well, but no meeting between the leaders was planned.

The prime minister's top aide, Dov Weisglass, spoke Monday with Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, to assure her that Sharon remained committed to carrying out the plan with only minor changes, government sources said.

Last month Mr. Bush tried to boost Sharon's chances in the referendum, endorsing the plan and giving him unprecedented assurances that in a final peace deal, Israel would not have to withdraw from all of the West Bank.

The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the Bush administration has turned down a request from Jordan's King Abdullah acknowledging possible Palestinian territorial claims if Israel retains settlements in the West Bank, according to U.S. officials.

Abdullah, in a sharply worded private letter to Mr. Bush, reportedly also had sought clarification that the issue of Jewish settlements and Palestinian refugees will be decided in final negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

He meets with the president later this week in Washington, after postponing a previous meeting to protest Mr. Bush's backing of Sharon's withdrawal plan.