Speaker: Sharon Has Betrayed Likud

A letter to members of Ariel Sharon's (search) Likud Party published Thursday accuses the prime minister of betraying his right-wing allies with his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip (search) and parts of the West Bank.

The letter by Parliament Speaker Reuven Rivlin (search) was a serious blow to Sharon's already shaky standing in the party and came just days before parliament's vote on the withdrawal plan next week.

However, the letter was not expected to change the outcome of the vote. While nearly half the Likud legislators have indicated they will vote against Sharon's plan, he has sufficient support from moderate opposition lawmakers.

In a letter sent to 3,000 key Likud members, Rivlin implied that the prime minister is unfit as a leader and that as a result of his plan Israel will eventually be required to give up large parts of the West Bank and Jerusalem as well.

He accused Sharon of betraying Likud's ideology, which espouses Israeli control over all the West Bank and Gaza.

"Now, as we reach the moment of truth for the first time, as the fate of the settlement movement is in our hands, in the hands of a national government, which has an almost unprecedented support in the public, it appears to me we are failing," Rivlin wrote in the letter, which was also published in the Yediot Ahronot daily.

Many Israelis, especially observant Jews, view territories Israel captured in the 1967 war, including the West Bank and Gaza, as part of the biblical Land of Israel. Sharon's plan outlines a withdrawal of troops and 8,800 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and four settlements in the West Bank.

Palestinians hope to establish a state in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, with part of Jerusalem as its capital. Israel has controlled the entire city since capturing east Jerusalem in 1967.

Cabinet Minister Tzipi Livni warned Rivlin and other Sharon detractors that their opposition to his disengagement plan would bring about early elections.

"They are starting a snowball that I don't think they can stop," Livni told Army Radio.

Livni's comments come amid an explosive political climate in the tense countdown to the vote.

On Wednesday, Sharon made a dramatic entrance into Israel's parliament surrounded by a large phalanx of bodyguards, as security officials voiced concern for his safety.

Security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Shin Bet security agency is on high alert regarding possible attacks on Sharon. They confirmed security has been bolstered around the prime minister, lawmakers and parliament.

Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra, a former senior Shin Bet official, was evasive when asked about specific threats against Sharon or lawmakers. "If there were specific threats ... we would deal with them," he told Army Radio.

The security concerns were evident during Sharon's visit to parliament on Wednesday.

Minutes before Sharon's arrival, three bodyguards cleared a hallway for him. The prime minister then entered the building surrounded by 10 bodyguards wearing the trademark loose-fitting safari jackets and ear pieces of Shin Bet agents, guns bulging at their sides.

Sharon, for decades the chief proponent of building Jewish settlements, now plans to become the first Israeli leader to uproot them. While opinion polls show a solid majority of Israelis favoring Sharon's plan, he faces significant opposition from many of his traditional supporters.

Settler groups, along with their backers in Sharon's Likud Party, have pledged to fight the plan, and some withdrawal opponents have denounced the prime minister as a dictator who is endangering Israel.

Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter has warned for months of growing militancy among settlers, and said he fears a small number — perhaps several dozen — could turn to violence.

Opposition leader Shimon Peres said this week the current political climate reminds him of the atmosphere ahead of the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was killed by an ultranationalist Jew opposed to peacemaking with the Palestinians.