Sharon cancels visit to U.S., will develop new Gaza plan


JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced yesterday that he will cancel a trip to the United States next week and devote his energies to revising the Gaza Strip withdrawal plan that his Likud Party rejected last week.

Aides said Sharon would spend the next two to three weeks consulting with Cabinet ministers before submitting a new proposal.

"The basic plan will not be changed," said a senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The new version might call for evacuating the Jewish settlements in phases rather than all at once, the official said.

The original proposal called for unilateral evacuation of all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank. Likud members voted overwhelmingly against the plan in a party referendum May 2 after settlers mounted an opposition campaign.

Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a Sharon rival, said Likud ministers were obliged to abide by the party's rejection of the plan and urged the premier to craft a new proposal capable of winning Likud support. Netanyahu had endorsed the original plan, but angered Sharon by refusing to campaign for it.

After the weekly Cabinet meeting yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a Sharon ally, said the prime minister had no choice but to push anew for the Gaza Strip pullout.

Even as debate over Sharon's plan continued, Israeli troops killed two Palestinian militants who opened fire on a memorial service in the Gaza Strip for a settler and her four children, who were slain in a highway ambush by Palestinian gunmen on the day of the Likud referendum. Yesterday's shootout, videotaped by Israeli television crews, sent mourners scrambling for cover behind a bulletproof bus. None of the mourners was injured.

Sharon's plan received the endorsement of President Bush during the prime minister's visit to Washington last month. Sharon had planned to visit Washington next week for a gathering of the America Israel Political Action Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group. He had hoped to meet with Bush and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

Sharon is under pressure to act quickly. His leading coalition partner, a centrist party called Shinui, has threatened to quit the government unless there is progress toward peace. Israel's attorney general has said he will decide by the end of this month whether to indict Sharon in a bribery case, a decision that could affect the future of his withdrawal plan.

Shinui's leader, Justice Minister Tommy Lapid, said yesterday that a revised plan should include a renewal of negotiations with the Palestinians.

"We cannot say now, 'This is it -- the pullout plan was turned down, it's all over, everything is back to where it was before, contrary to the opinion held by the Americans, the Europeans, the Arab world and the majority of Israelis,'" Lapid told Israel Radio.

The cancellation of Sharon's visit comes as the Bush administration is stepping up efforts to win Arab support for Israel's withdrawal from Gaza. U.S. officials hope to convince Palestinian leaders that an Israeli withdrawal represents the best hope for restarting peace talks.

The Palestinians welcome an Israeli departure from the Gaza Strip but fear that Israel would use the move to bolster its claim to portions of the West Bank.

Palestinian officials expressed anger last month when Bush backed Israel's claim to keep West Bank land containing the largest Jewish settlements. He triggered further outrage when he said it was unlikely that Palestinians would be able to return to ancestral homes they fled or were expelled from when Israel became a state in 1948.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will travel to Jordan next weekend for a meeting with Arab leaders. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to meet the next week with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia in Berlin.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said yesterday that the Palestinians plan to tell Rice: "We are ready. We can be partners. Let's look forward and not look backward."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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