JERUSALEM – In a challenge to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search), Israel's foreign minister announced that he would lead the campaign for a national referendum on the planned Gaza withdrawal, which could delay the pullout for months.
However, the minister, Silvan Shalom (search), might be hard-pressed to muster parliamentary support for a plebescite.
Shalom has been fickle in his support for the planned pullout from Gaza (search) and four West Bank settlements, set to begin in July. Appearing on Channel Two TV late Tuesday, Shalom said he would now campaign for the referendum, backing a key demand by opponents of a withdrawal.
"I mean to do this in the public, parliamentary and party forums," Shalom said. "The only thing that is motivating me is to prevent a split among our people. There is going to be a split and I want to avoid it."
Israeli commentators said Shalom posed the challenge to Sharon, in part, because he was upset over not having been asked to attend Tuesday's Mideast summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik.
Sharon opposes a referendum, calling it a delaying tactic.
Shalom's campaign for a referendum could disrupt the process if the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, which opposes the Gaza pullout, joins in the demand, giving pro-referendum forces a parliamentary majority, political commentator Hanan Crystal said Wednesday.
But Shas' spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, whose dictates have the force of law among his followers, is unlikely to support a plebiscite because that could make the ultra-Orthodox vulnerable to referendum rulings on issues sensitive to their community, Crystal said.
"Yosef has to agree to this, but I'm not sure that he will, because a referendum on this issue could set a precedent for referenda on other issues like drafting religious students for military service," Crystal said. "For that reason the ultra-Orthodox community has always opposed referenda as a tool."
Currently, ultra-Orthodox men who study in religious seminaries, or yeshivas, are able to claim exemptions from three years of compulsory service. Tens of thousands take advantage of that benefit.
Public opinion polls show that two-thirds of Israelis support the plan to evacuate all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four small communities in the West Bank. But opponents — including the powerful settlers movement and at least one-third of the lawmakers in Sharon's ruling Likud Party — want a plebiscite before it is implemented.
Shalom, who has considerable backing among the Likud rank and file, has often raised questions about the wisdom of the Gaza handover. Additionally, he and Sharon have uneasy relations because the foreign minister often feels left out of major diplomatic developments, such as Tuesday's summit.
Shalom denied that holding a referendum would delay the pullout.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians object to the unilateral nature of the pullout to begin with, and want a resumption of broad peace negotiations, based on the internationally backed "road map" peace plan, that would include a withdrawal from Gaza.
"The thing that really angers us on the Palestinian side is that they are having a referendum to decide my future and my fate," Erekat said. "What we want from them is to come back to the negotiating table and resume a meaningful peace process, and to make the disengagement part of the road map."
Momentum toward resuming talks received a major boost Tuesday when Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Sharon met in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik to jointly declare an end to four years of bloodletting.
Cease-fires have been declared before, but major changes in the region — chiefly, the death of longtime Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, and Sharon's Gaza pullout plan — have generated hopes that this one will stick.
The United States has also expressed renewed interest in resolving the conflict, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressuring both sides this week to seize the opportunity for peace.
"Maybe this time," read the headline in the Maariv daily Wednesday that was emblazoned over a picture of Sharon and Abbas smiling and shaking hands.
Erekat and Sharon aide Dov Weisglass are to meet Thursday to discuss further steps.
Israeli troops are to hand over five West Bank towns to Palestinian control within three weeks, a senior Palestinian official said Tuesday. Israel has also pledged to free 500 Palestinain prisoners immediately, to be followed by 400 more at a later stage.
Israeli and Palestinian security commanders are to meet Wednesday to prepare the handover of Jericho, the first West Bank town in the list of five.
Following the summit, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz announced a series of measures to alleviate conditions for Palestinians, a defense official said. The measures include allowing 1,000 Palestinians from the Gaza Strip to work in Israel, and several hundred more to work at the Erez Industrial Zone between Israel and Gaza.
The number of West Bank Palestinians who will be allowed to work in Israel is also to rise, but details weren't released.
Before the violence erupted four years ago, tens of thousands of Palestinians worked in Israel. Now, just a few hundred have permits.
Additionally, 500 merchants will be allowed to enter Israel for business, and relatives will be allowed to visit Gaza residents incarcerated in Israeli prisons. Four hundred Palestinian employees of international organizations are to be allowed to move freely between Gaza and the West Bank.