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Sharon: Budget Woes Could Topple Gov't

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) said his government could fall over a crucial budget vote this month if hardline rebels in his Likud Party (search) make good on threats to vote against the spending plan.

If the 2005 state budget does not pass by March 31, Sharon must step down and new elections will be called, endangering his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip (search) and four West Bank settlements this summer.

Thirteen of 40 Likud legislators oppose the pullout plan and have said they would vote against the budget, depriving Sharon of a majority in parliament, though opposition lawmakers might support him at the last minute. It remains unclear whether all rebels will vote no, since they could lose their parliament seats after new elections.

Addressing female members of the Likud on Thursday evening to mark International Women's Day, Sharon said his government could easily fall over the budget.

"We face a problem today. The problem is that there is a group within the Likud that threatens to vote against the budget and bring down the Likud government," Sharon said .

"I call on you to use your influence with the men and make every effort to make sure that the Likud does not fall because this group has announced it will vote against the budget when it is presented," he added.

Several opposition parties have said they would vote against the budget, but are expected to change their position at the last minute if opposing the spending plan would mean bringing down Sharon and delaying the Gaza withdrawal. If he wins last-minute support from the opposition, Sharon could survive without the Likud rebels.

Under Sharon's plan, Israel would remove Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and four more from the northern West Bank starting this summer. The opponents bitterly oppose conceding land to the Palestinians.

On Thursday Sharon began a series of meetings with undecided lawmakers, attempting to persuade them to support the budget.

Meanwhile, about 2,000 Islamic Jihad members took to the streets of Gaza Friday in a pro-Syria demonstration. About 1,500 of the marchers were masked. Burning Israeli and American flags, they protested against U.S. pressure on Syria to quit Lebanon.

"The Palestinian people came out today to send a message that we reject the American plans in this region. We reject the American-Israeli plan to plant civil disturbances and discord in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria," said Mohammed al Hindi, an Islamic Jihad leader.

Pro- and anti-Syrian demonstrations have jolted Lebanon since the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which the opposition has blamed on the Lebanese government and its Syrian backers. Both deny involvement.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah on Thursday, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas also faced internal challenges.

Gunmen from his Fatah Party broke up a meeting of activists in the West Bank just as Abbas, kilometers (miles) away in the Gaza Strip, was expressing optimism about a formal cease-fire declaration to end attacks against Israelis.

More than 1,000 Fatah grass-roots activists were meeting in a Ramallah hotel when two dozen gunmen dressed in military-style fatigues, their faces covered, burst into the room, driving the activists out and charging that the Fatah leadership is corrupt.

The turmoil in his party could come back to haunt him if it is reflected in poor results in summer parliamentary elections. The Islamic militant group Hamas has scored impressive victories in local elections in Gaza in recent weeks, and Fatah is increasingly concerned about doing poorly in the parliamentary elections.

Egypt, which has been mediating talks for several years between the Palestinian Authority and militant groups, has invited Abbas and 13 militant groups to Cairo next Tuesday to formalize the truce.

"I expect this meeting in Cairo will conclude all the efforts that have been made by the Egyptian brothers," Abbas told reporters in Gaza City, adding that he will personally participate in the gathering. "God willing, we could have a declaration," he said.