JERUSALEM – President Bush's strong endorsement of Israel's "disengagement plan" lifted support Thursday for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) but left angry Palestinian leaders scrambling to galvanize international opposition to the U.S. stance.
At a White House meeting with the Israeli leader Wednesday, Bush expressed support for Sharon's plan to withdraw from all of Gaza and a handful of West Bank settlements.
While voicing support for an independent Palestinian state, Bush also gave unprecedented U.S. backing for Israel to hold on to major settlement blocs in the West Bank. He also ruled out allowing Palestinian refugees to return to Israel after a Palestinian state is created.
Those concessions enraged the Palestinians, who want an independent state in all of the West Bank and Gaza, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
Palestinian leaders held a series of urgent meetings in a desperate effort to gather international support amid fears their government was on the verge of collapse.
In other developments, Israel's attorney general imposed a freeze on funding for West Bank settlements, fearing money is being diverted to unauthorized outposts. Elsewhere, an Israeli helicopter fired two missiles during a raid on a Gaza refugee camp, wounding 15 Palestinians, hospital officials said.
For Sharon, the White House meeting gave a welcome lift at home, where he faces opposition from hard-liners opposed to ceding any territory to the Palestinians. Sharon has scheduled a May 2 referendum on the withdrawal in his Likud Party, and the chances of approval are uncertain.
"Sharon: The Great Achievement," read the main headline in Yediot Ahronot, the country's largest newspaper, above a photo of a smiling Sharon and Bush.
A poll commissioned by Israel Army Radio showed growing Likud support for the plan. It said 57 percent of Likud voters plan to vote in favor and 35 percent against. Earlier polls had given Sharon barely 50 percent support. No margin of error was given.
"This poll, in my opinion, represents the true mood of the Likud voters. Likud voters are responsible and want a result like this," Vice Premier Ehud Olmert (search), a close Sharon confidant, told Army Radio.
Hard-liners oppose evacuating settlements in principle have labeled Sharon's plan a "reward for terrorism" that would spur more violence.
In a related development, Attorney General Meni Mazuz ordered government ministries to freeze the transfer of all funds to Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, fearing the money is being transferred to outposts, the Justice Ministry said.
Mazuz imposed the freeze until an oversight committee is formed to monitor the flow of funds.
Israel is required to dismantle dozens of outposts under the internationally backed "road map" peace plan, although it has only removed a handful of them.
Early Thursday, the military evacuated two uninhabited outposts, arresting seven settlers during the operation, the army said.
The United States and Palestinians have criticized the outposts as seeds of future settlements.
West Bank settler leader Pinchas Wallerstein denied there were any illegal transfers of money. Mazuz's order was an attempt to "delegitimize the settlers," Wallerstein told Israel Radio.
Meanwhile, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search) traveled to the West Bank city of Ramallah to discuss the developments in Washington with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (search). Qureia also was meeting with European and U.S. diplomats.
The Palestinian leaders appealed to the international community to support a negotiated solution based on the 1967 borders and the road map. Arafat planned a televised speech later in the day.
Qureia told associates he was considering resigning, saying that Bush had undermined the negotiating process. But Qureia has threatened to step down in the past, and it was unclear whether he would follow through this time.
On Wednesday, Qureia harshly criticized Bush's stand. "He is the first president who has legitimized the settlements," he said. "We as Palestinians reject that." Qureia objected to the unilateral nature of Israel's planned moves, which ignore the Palestinians.
The Islamic militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad also denounced Bush's statement.
Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi said Bush had "put an end to the illusions" of a peaceful solution. "This American statement came as a part of the American declared war against Islam and is in harmony with the American terrorism against our people in Iraq."
An Islamic Jihad spokesman said Bush's statement was "a declaration of war against the Palestinian people."
In Gaza, meanwhile, an Israeli helicopter fired two missiles during a raid of the Rafah refugee camp early Thursday, wounding at least 15 Palestinians, Palestinian hospital officials said. Four of the wounded were in critical condition, they said.
The army said it had uncovered a weapons-smuggling tunnel during the raid in Rafah, which is located along the border with Egypt.
Fox News' Peter Brownfeld and The Associated Press contributed to this report.