Most Israelis Support Sharon's Gaza Plan

A majority of Israelis, including supporters of the ruling Likud Party (search), back Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's (search) Gaza withdrawal plan, a poll indicated Tuesday, despite a growing rebellion by Likud legislators opposed to the proposal.

The poll in the Maariv daily was published a day after Sharon came under sharp criticism at a gathering of Likud lawmakers. The turbulent meeting was cut short because of the verbal assault on the prime minister.

In new violence, Palestinian militants fired two homemade rockets from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel early Tuesday. One hit a building in an industrial zone less than two miles from Sharon's desert ranch, the army said.

Sharon was not at the ranch at the time, and no one was injured.

Palestinian militants in Gaza frequently fire the inaccurate Qassam rockets toward neighboring Jewish settlements or Israeli border towns, but they rarely cause casualties.

Sharon has been trying to push his Gaza withdrawal plan since Likud members resoundingly rejected it in a party referendum last month. On Sunday, Sharon failed to secure a majority in the Cabinet for his Gaza plan and postponed a vote until next week.

Sharon's plan calls for a full withdrawal from Gaza and from four settlements in the northern West Bank. Since the referendum setback, Sharon has slightly revised the plan, saying he would carry out the withdrawal in four stages, instead of one.

Sharon's main Likud rival, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (search), has led the opposition, voicing support for a far more limited Gaza withdrawal.

Tuesday's poll, conducted by the Teleseker group, said 55 percent of Israelis support Sharon's plan, while 32 percent back Netanyahu. Likud supporters also favor Sharon's proposal by a 54-31 margin over Netanyahu, the survey said. It had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

Despite the poll, analysts said Sharon has a tough battle ahead in trying to get the plan passed by the bitterly divided Cabinet, where he is one vote short of a majority.

"He doesn't have any ability to pass his political plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip despite the public's support," said commentator Shimon Shiffer on Israel Radio.

Sharon believes that withdrawing from Gaza would boost Israel's security and help it hold on to parts of the West Bank in a final peace deal with the Palestinians. About 7,500 Jewish settlers live amid 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza, a crowded coastal strip that borders Egypt.

The prime minister has garnered support of the United States, Egypt and the Palestinians for the plan.

Egypt has taken an especially active role in recent days to help ensure peace and quiet in Gaza once Israel pulls out, offering to help reorganize and retrain Palestinian security forces there.

On Monday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called Sharon and "reiterated his willingness to advance the plan," Sharon's office said.

The two leaders agreed to form a committee, and Israeli officials said Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom would fly to Cairo on June 7 to discuss details. Shalom had initially been scheduled to travel June 3. Officials attributed the delay to scheduling issues.

Shalom has refused to endorse Sharon's plan, and some Israeli commentators said it appears Mubarak is trying to persuade the wavering foreign minister to support a withdrawal — which would give Sharon a Cabinet majority.

Asked about Egypt's mediation efforts Tuesday, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said he is "waiting for the Israeli response."

Trying to stem a Likud rebellion, Sharon presented his revised Gaza plan at a closed meeting of party legislators Monday. The meeting was cut short after Sharon came under sharp verbal attack by legislator Naomi Blumenthal.

Blumenthal, a staunch opponent of the plan, castigated Sharon for trying to reverse the Likud referendum. "You are belittling us, scorning us, threatening us. Do you want to disengage from the Likud?" she said.

Sharon did not respond, and the meeting ended quickly, participants said.

Signs of Sharon's growing political weakness have fueled talk about early elections. Sharon himself has threatened to reshape his coalition, including firing ministers.

Trucks rumbled through the main cargo crossing into Gaza on Monday for the first time in three weeks. The trucks carrying cigarettes and dairy products brought some relief, but failed to alleviate a growing shortage of consumer goods.

News that a cigarette shipment had passed the cargo crossing sent thousands of smokers out to stores, which had run out of supplies in recent days.

The Karni cargo crossing has been closed since Israeli security uncovered an attempt to smuggle a suicide bomber's explosives vest out of the Gaza Strip on May 11 in a shipping container.

That caused shortages in the Gaza Strip in the last three days in dairy products, baby formula, fruits, mineral water, soft drinks and cigarettes, residents said.

The crossing was fully opened by Tuesday, the army said.