JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) is scrambling to come up with alternatives, including a possible pullout from just five Jewish settlements, after his Likud Party (search) overwhelmingly rejected a withdrawal from all of the Gaza Strip (search), a senior government official said Tuesday.
In Gaza, an Israeli missile strike killed two Palestinians, including a 16-year-old boy, and wounded 22 others, in fighting in a refugee camp.
Sharon had promoted a "unilateral disengagement" from the Palestinians for several months, and Likud's rejection of the plan in a referendum Sunday dealt a tough blow to the prime minister.
Sharon has pledged to find an alternative that would be more acceptable to his hard-line party. However, he is also under pressure from a key coalition partner, the moderate Shinui Party, to push forward with his peace efforts. The main opposition Labor Party, meanwhile, is pushing for early elections.
Shinui leader Yosef Lapid met with Sharon on Tuesday and said the prime minister assured him he would seek to win approval for an altered disengagement plan. Lapid had threatened to Shinui out of the coalition if there is no progress.
"He (Sharon) convinced me that he intends to continue with peace efforts, and this a prerequisite for Shinui remaining in the government," Lapid told Army Radio.
Sharon's original plan envisioned an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, home to 7,500 settlers in 21 settlements who live amid 1.3 million Palestinians, and the evacuation of four small settlements in the West Bank by the end of 2005.
Half the Likud's 193,000 participated in Sunday's referendum, and 60 percent of them voted "no."
Lapid said it is absurd to give Likud members, a tiny fraction of the population, a virtual veto over matters of such vital importance.
A poll published Tuesday in the Yediot Ahronot daily said that if Sharon had presented his plan for a general referendum it would have passed by 62 percent to 32 percent. The paper did not give a margin of error.
A senior government official said Sharon was considering a scaled-back withdrawal from three settlements in Gaza and two in the West Bank.
"This is one option that is being considered. Nothing has been decided," the official said on condition of anonymity. He said the prime minister was coordinating his moves with other Likud leaders and Cabinet ministers.
Later Tuesday, Sharon was to meet with Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, who favors new elections. Sharon has been paralyzed by right-wing pressure, Peres told Israel Army Radio.
"Everything he can get approved won't be serious, and everything that's serious won't get approved," Peres said. "The only way is to return to the people, to ask the people what they want."
Sharon had proposed his "disengagement plan" as the best way to obtain security for Israel in the absence of peace moves and to defuse international pressure for greater concessions.
Sharon said Monday he would present his new plan to parliament and to the Cabinet, but not to another party referendum.
The prime minister's top aide, Dov Weisglass, spoke Monday with Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, to assure her that Sharon remained committed to carrying out the plan with only minor changes, government sources said.
Last month Bush tried to boost Sharon's chances in the referendum, endorsing the plan and giving him unprecedented assurances that in a final peace deal, Israel would not have to withdraw from all of the West Bank.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the vote was a "setback" for Sharon but said the United States is open to other ways to moving peace efforts forward.
The senior Israeli official said any new plan would be coordinated with Washington.
In Gaza, meanwhile, an Israeli attack helicopter fired a missile early Tuesday at a group of armed Palestinians in the Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza, killing two and wounding 22, residents and doctors said. Witnesses said gunmen fired two missiles at Israeli tanks in the camp before the helicopter struck.
Palestinian hospital officials said one of those killed was a 25-year-old member of the militant Hamas group. The other victim, a 16-year-old boy, was a civilian. Doctors at Khan Younis hospital said five of the wounded were in critical condition. Some civilians were among the wounded, they said.
Israeli forces withdrew from the area early Tuesday, the army said.
The Israeli operation followed an attack Sunday by Palestinian gunmen who ambushed an Israeli vehicle, killing a pregnant Jewish settler and her four young daughters.
Also early Tuesday, Israeli troops took up positions around Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's office building in the West Bank city of Ramallah, witnesses said.
Israeli military officials said soldiers were arresting suspects, but the operation was not linked to Arafat's office. There were no reports of gunfire. The soldiers were withdrawn early Tuesday, the army said.