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Sharon Tells Off Party Mavericks

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party voted Thursday for a national referendum that would delay or even derail a pullout from Gaza and part of the West Bank this summer, but the embattled leader ignored the nonbinding resolution and pressed ahead, scheduling a final parliamentary test in two weeks.

Agreeing in advance to the vote, Sharon faced down critics, including his foreign minister and finance minister, who insisted that since Sharon switched from backing settlement expansion to uprooting them, the people should have a say.

In other developments:

  • A car bomb exploded in the West Bank town of Nablus, causing no casualties, but damaging Palestinian buildings, reports CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger. It's not clear if the target was Israeli troops or nearby Joseph's Tomb, where hundreds of Jewish worshipers were praying.
  • Israel and the Palestinian Authority are negotiating the fate of Jewish property in the Gaza Strip following the planned pullout from the area. Israel originally planned to demolish the Gaza settlements, but now Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres is negotiating a handover of Jewish property to the Palestinians.
  • Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas urged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to intervene personally to ensure that both Israelis and Palestinian factions adhere to an agreement reached last month, including a pledge of nonviolence.
  • Abbas also said he expects the Palestinian militant groups Islamic Jihad and Hamas to take part in a meeting of Palestinian factions planned for mid-March in Cairo.

    "The majority of the people support both the 'disengagement' and a referendum," said Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. The pullout would man removing veteran settlements from the West Bank and Gaza for the first time. There has never been a referendum in Israel.

    Speaking to his raucous central committee, Sharon did not even mention the referendum idea, which he considers a last-ditch delaying tactic. Instead, he referred to parliamentary approval of the pullout last month.

    "The decisions of the parliament will be carried out as approved," he declared, drawing boos from the crowd. "I will not allow the extremist margins to dictate our policy," he said. Sharon said the pullout would cement Israel's hold on vital parts of the West Bank, including main settlement blocs.

    The Likud convention's action had only symbolic value, because there is a parliamentary majority against a referendum.

    However, Sharon has to survive a crucial budget vote to remain in power, and party rebels plan to vote against him. If he fails to pass the budget by March 31, he must resign and call elections — making the budget the ultimate test of the pullout plan.

    On Thursday, Sharon informed the parliament that the final budget vote would take place March 17, giving him two weeks to garner support, probably by passing out special allocations to single-interest parties.

    Also, dovish opposition parties are seen unlikely to bring down Sharon's government, even over an unpopular austerity budget, if it means stopping the pullout, which they strongly favor.

    Sharon blasted party critics of the pullout who intend to vote against the budget. "We can try to persuade each other," he said, "but to work to bring down our government is forbidden."

    Joseph's Tomb has been one of the flashpoints of fighting in the past four years of violence. At the start of the Palestinian uprising, Israeli troops withdrew from the enclave, which was largely destroyed by Palestinian militants. Since then, the Israeli military has barred Jewish worshippers, except for special visits under army protection.

    Peres said Thursday that Abbas' goverment is making progress toward imposing order — despite the Nablus bomb, last week's Tel Aviv suicide bombing and other attempts by Palestinian militants to torpedo the peace movement.

    Peres' meeting on economic issues Wednesday night in Tel Aviv with Palestinian Cabinet minister Mohammed Dahlan was the first high-level meeting between the sides since the nightclub bombing which killed five Israelis on Friday. That attack was claimed by the militant Islamic Jihad.

    "There is a change, a deep change and some of the things the Palestinians have done are worthy of praise," Peres told Israel Army Radio, giving as one example the deployment of Palestinian police in the Gaza Strip to prevent the firing of locally made Qassam rockets at Israeli targets.

    "There is relative calm. Certainly there are people trying to destroy peace efforts, that doesn't surprise me," he said.

    Israeli security officials say Palestinian security forces have arrested several Islamic Jihad activist since the Tel Aviv bombing. Overnight, Israeli troops arrested four more members of the group.

    Peres said he discussed with Dahlan the possibility of Israel handing over 1,000 acres of greenhouses in Gaza settlements to the Palestinians after its planned withdrawal in the summer.

    "The greatest problem in Gaza will be employment and jobs," he said.

    Yonatan Bassi, the senior Israeli official overseeing the withdrawal, said Wednesday that peppers and tomatoes grown in the greenhouses could help feed the 1.3 million Palestinians packed into the narrow coastal strip. Luxury items such as flowers and strawberries would be exported, mainly to the European Union.

    A study published last year by the United Nations and the U.S. Agency for International Development said seven out of 10 Palestinians were living on insufficient food, and the United Nations put unemployment in Gaza at more than 22 percent.

    A USAID official in Tel Aviv said 3,000 Palestinians were currently working in settlement greenhouses and that turning them over to Palestinian ownership could create a further 7,000 jobs.

    A Jihad spokesman in the Palestinian territories, Khaled al-Batsh, told the Egyptian daily al-Ahram on Thursday that his group would participate in the March 15 talks but said signing a truce depends on Israel's responses to Palestinian demands. Palestinian militant groups' demands have included the release of Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons.