Sharon Faces Battle Over 'Disengagement'

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) arrived home Friday from Washington, facing a tough domestic battle over his "unilateral disengagement" plan despite a boost from his talks with President Bush.

Sharon's first challenge is to convince skeptical members of his Likud Party (search) who will hold a May 2 referendum on the plan. Polls published Friday gave the prime minister only a slim majority among 200,000 party members.

The plan, which calls for Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and small areas of the West Bank, was published in full for the first time in Israeli newspapers on Friday.

According to that text, the withdrawal would be completed by 2005. Israel would not destroy the settlements it leaves behind — unlike in a pullout from the Sinai Peninsula in the 1980s — and would no longer consider itself responsible for areas it evacuates.

In a White House meeting Wednesday, Bush endorsed the plan. The president also said Israel could keep parts of the West Bank in a final peace deal and would not be expected to take in Palestinian refugees, meeting two key Israeli demands that infuriated the Palestinians.

Sharon hopes these concessions from Israel's biggest ally will propel him to victory in the Likud vote.

Polls published Friday gave Sharon a lead, but suggested victory is not assured.

A survey among 508 eligible Likud voters, published in the Yediot Ahronot daily, had 54 percent in favor and 32 percent against, with 14 percent undecided. However, among those Likud members who said they were certain to vote, the share of opponents rose to 38 percent. No margin of error was given.

A poll in the Maariv daily had 49.4 percent in favor, 38.4 against and 12.2 percent undecided. When Maariv polled those who were sure to vote, Sharon support rose to 51.6 percent, with 40.3 percent against. The poll had an error margin of 4.3 percentage points and was conducted among 501 Likud voters.

If Sharon wins, he intends to bring the plan to his Cabinet and the parliament within days. If he loses he will face growing pressure to resign. The Haaretz daily said Sharon's son Omri, campaigning among Likud members, warned the undecided that the prime minister would step down if he loses.

The plan published Friday outlines the three main points: withdrawal from all of Gaza, evacuating a settlement pocket in the northern West Bank and completion of the separation barrier Israel is building in the West Bank.

According to the plan, Israel will leave all of Gaza except for a patrol road along the Egyptian border. Israel also intends to retain full control of the crossings into Gaza, Gaza airspace and a stretch of sea off the Gaza coast.

Israel may expand the border road before the withdrawal, the plan said. Since the current round of fighting began in September 2000, Israel has razed more than 600 Palestinian homes near the patrol road, in the Rafah refugee camp.

The withdrawal plan said that Israel "will aspire to leave standing the real estate assets of the settlements," it evacuates. However, a senior Israeli official traveling with Sharon said Israel would not accept the houses being given to families of Palestinian militants or to Palestinian leaders.

Israel is in negotiations with the World Bank to receive compensation for the houses left behind, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Also Friday, security officials said they plan to dismantle 28 unauthorized West Bank settlement outposts in the next few weeks. About 240 families live in those outposts, the officials said.

Israel is required to remove dozens of outposts as part of the now dormant U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, but has taken down only a few. In his meeting with Bush, Sharon promised to keep his commitment.

The Palestinians have said they welcome any Israeli withdrawal from land they claim for their state, but they were shocked by Bush's support for Israel's demand to retain parts of the West Bank and bar Palestinian refugees from Israel.

In other developments, Israeli forces foiled a bombing attempt near the West Bank settlement of Ariel, the West Bank's second largest, and one of those Sharon wants to keep in a final peace deal.

At a bus stop outside Ariel, soldiers arrested a Palestinian woman carrying a 22-pound bomb in a bag, the military said. The bomb was detonated safely.

Palestinians identified the woman as Fatten Daraghmeh, a 28-year-old mother of six from a village near the West Bank city of Nablus.

Members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search), an armed group with ties to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, said they gave the explosives to a man from the same village but didn't know he would then pass it on to Daraghmeh.

Violence continued Friday as hundreds of Palestinians protesting the barrier construction clashed with troops on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Dozens of youths threw rocks at the troops, who responded with tear gas and rubber-coated bullets, witnesses said. One person was critically wounded, hospital officials said.

Israel says the barrier is necessary to keep out militants; Palestinians call it a land grab.

Jerusalem police also clashed with Palestinian youths near a disputed holy site ahead of Friday prayers, police said.

Also Friday, a Palestinian man who was wounded in the March 22 assassination of Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin died of his wounds in an Egyptian hospital, Palestinian health officials said.