Sharon's Gaza Plan In Trouble

Caption Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon listens to questions from the media during an impromptu news conference at his office in Jerusalem Wednesday April 21, 2004.
In a last-minute bid to shore up crashing support for his Gaza withdrawal plan, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gave a series of interviews broadcast Thursday painting an upcoming referendum on the plan as a vote of confidence in him. He stopped short of threatening to resign, however.

The latest polls show Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffering a catastrophic drop in support in his ruling Likud party for the Gaza withdrawal plan, reports CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger. The Likud holds a crucial referendum on the plan on Sunday. The polls show opponents of the plan ahead by from 9 to 12 percentage points — just a week ago Sharon was ahead by that margin. If Sharon loses, it could doom the Gaza plan, which has become a cornerstone of his policy.

In Gaza City, tens of thousands of Palestinians demonstrated in support of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and against Israeli threats to harm him.

Also in Gaza, a remote-controlled bomb went off in the house of the Gaza police chief, Ghazi Jabali, destroying the ground floor. Jabali had left a few minutes earlier, and no one was hurt. Residents found a 25-yard wire leading from the scene, attached to a switch.

The blast apparently stemmed from violent, internal Palestinian rivalries. A February shootout at Jabali's Gaza office with backers of rival Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan killed one police officer and wounded 10 others.

Some of the internal Palestinian violence has been attributed to a jockeying for power among different groups ahead of Sharon's proposed pullout from the Gaza Strip.

Two polls published in Israeli newspapers Thursday indicated a significant shift of opinion among Likud voters against the "disengagement plan," which would also include the evacuation of four small West Bank settlements.

A survey in the Maariv daily showed 45 percent of Likud members oppose the plan, with 42 percent in support. Thirteen percent said they were undecided. The poll of 470 Likud members has a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

A poll published in the Yediot Ahronot daily showed 47 percent against the plan, 39 percent in favor and 14 percent undecided. The poll was conducted among 583 Likud members, and no margin of error was given.

Support for the plan was 54 percent in the same poll two weeks ago and 49 percent last week.

Opponents of the plan have been active for weeks, demonstrating on street corners and plastering city walls around Israel with posters saying a pullout would be "a victory for terror" and would endanger Israel.

Until the last few days, supporters have done little to rally voters to their side.

Sharon began personally calling Likud officials Wednesday to appeal for their support, and he sent allies around the country to whip up support.

Sharon met with advisers Thursday and newspapers reported that many of his aides have already started blaming each other for what they view as the coming debacle.

In interviews with radio stations and newspapers, broadcast and published Thursday, Sharon called his opponents "the extreme rightwing," said a "no" vote would be a victory for Palestinian militants and warned Likud voters that the plan's defeat would have dire consequences.

He suggested it could force the party out of power, but stopped short of saying he would resign in case of defeat. "You can't be for me, but be against my plan," Sharon told Israel Radio.

"Whoever wants me understands that only in this way can I fulfill my promise to bring peace and security. Whoever believes in me must vote for the disengagement plan ... Whoever supports me must vote for the plan," Sharon said.

When asked what he would do if he lost, Sharon responded: "I don't even want to think of that situation."

Sources close to Sharon said that he would not threaten in public to resign.

Sharon's plan was bolstered by U.S. President George W. Bush's endorsement two weeks ago and his backing for Sharon's position that Israel should not have to give the Palestinians all of the West Bank or let Palestinian refugees return to Israel in a peace deal.

But many in Sharon's traditionally pro-settler party remain wary of pulling down Jewish settlements.

Sharon had originally promised to honor the Likud referendum, but backed down last week, with advisers saying he will present his plan to the Cabinet and parliament regardless of the vote's results.

In Gaza City, thousands of school children, university students, public workers, Palestinian security forces and members of the other militant factions marched carrying posters of Arafat and signs warning Israel not to harm him.

"Killing him or harming him means that the Palestinians will delete the word peace from their dictionary," said a gunman from Arafat's Fatah party who identified himself as Abu Nasser.

Earlier this month Sharon said he was no longer bound by a promise to the Americans not to assassinate Arafat.

Also Thursday, the body of a Palestinian militant was found near the West Bank settlement of Kadim, Palestinians said. The military said it had no troops operating in the area at the time. Palestinian sources said the man may have been killed accidentally by fellow members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades — a militant group loosely linked with Arafat's Fatah movement.

In the village of Tsara near Nablus the army destroyed the homes of two Hamas members.