Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday brushed aside suggestions he might resign after the humiliating rejection of his Gaza withdrawal plan by his own Likud Party, and vowed to push ahead with the controversial scheme, perhaps in modified form.
"I want to say in the clearest fashion there will be another plan," he told a meeting of Likud lawmakers.
As the Prime Minister embarked on a series of consultations on whether and how to amend the plan, he made it clear he has no intention of stepping down. "I intend to continue leading the state of Israel to the best of my understanding, conscience and public duty. This is not an easy task. However, I intend to carry it through."
At the same time, Israeli opponents of the pullout celebrated yesterday by laying the cornerstone of a new residence in a Gaza settlement and moving four Jewish families into a predominantly Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem.
Mr. Sharon's plan envisioned an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, home to 7,500 Jewish settlers in 21 settlements, and the evacuation of four small settlements in the West Bank by the end of 2005. But members of Likud, a traditionally pro-settler party, disagreed. They voted against the plan 60 per cent to 40 per cent in a nonbinding referendum on Sunday. But only about half of Likud's 190,000 members voted.
Opposition leader Shimon Peres said it was "unacceptable" for Likud members, who make up less than 2 per cent of the Israeli population, to determine the future of the country. He called for early elections, amid rumours that Mr. Sharon has already offered him a return to the coveted foreign-affairs portfolio in a broad-based national unity government.
Israeli officials suggested the original withdrawal plan, which was popular with Israelis and had U.S. backing, would be slightly scaled down and the new version would not be put to a Likud vote.
"I intend to consult my ministers, the Likud faction and other Knesset factions in order to examine the implications and the steps we intend to take," Mr. Sharon told Likud members of the Knesset, or parliament.
And in what appeared to be a hint that he might go it alone without the right wing of his party, or perhaps call new elections, Mr. Sharon warned: "Israel elected us to find a way to tranquillity, security and peace and promoting Israel's economy. And we intend to do this. There is no other reason for us to be here in the Knesset."
There were hints yesterday from the Prime Minister's circle that he will present the disengagement plan directly to the Israeli people, who polls indicate are overwhelmingly in favour of Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
Gerald Steinberg, a political analyst at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, said Mr. Sharon might "try and detour around the Likud, basically abandoning his own party, his own core constituency and try to build a centrist Israeli political party or some sort of consensus-based new bloc."
In April, U.S. President George W. Bush threw his support behind the disengagement plan, provoking widespread Arab anger. Yesterday, the White House said it will examine options with Mr. Sharon, calling his disengagement plan "a courageous and important step towards peace."
While some U.S. commentators said the Likud rejection of the plan has undermined Mr. Bush's credibility in the Middle East, Professor Steinberg disagreed.
"It's an embarrassment for Sharon in his future dealings with the White House because he was not able to deliver on that deal, but for the U.S. government in the big picture this is not a major issue," he said.
In Gaza overnight, an Israeli attack helicopter fired a missile at a group of Palestinians in a Gaza refugee camp, wounding at least 12, three critically, residents said. Hours earlier, in a separate incident in the West Bank, Israeli troops took up positions around Palestinian president Yasser Arafat's office building in the city of Ramallah, witnesses told Associated Press. Military officials said soldiers were arresting suspects, but said the operation was not linked to Mr. Arafat.