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Sharon attempts to regroup after defeat

Plan voted down; Sharon consults on next move


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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- a day after his own party voted down his disengagement plan in a non-binding referendum -- said Monday he will consult with his Cabinet, his party and other parties on how to proceed.

Sharon said after the Likud party vote Sunday that he "respected" the result but would not resign.

Likud party's members voted Sunday, soundly rejecting Sharon's plan to disengage with the Palestinians and pull Jewish settlements out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank by a 20-point margin.

Meeting with lawmakers at the opening of the summer term of Israel's parliament, the Knesset, Sharon said the Israeli people elected the Knesset to find peace and security and said that is what he intends to do.

Sharon, who had hinted before the vote that a defeat might force him call new elections, said after the results came in that he would not resign.

"I respect the results," he said in a statement. "My intention is to continue to lead the country to the best of my ability, my conscience and public obligation. It is not an easy mission, but it is my intention to do it."

Raanan Gissin, a top Sharon adviser, said Sharon remains committed to disengagement and is checking options, including possible changes. However, Gissin said any new initiative will be based on the principles of the existing disengagement plan and on the commitments that Israel has given the United States.

Among Sharon's options are modifying his plan enough to get it through the Knesset.

Other options include resigning and calling for new elections or putting the plan to a vote of the entire Israeli electorate.

One of Sharon's closest aides, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said Monday that despite the landslide defeat among Likud members the idea of disengagement is "unstoppable."

White House stands firm

The White House issued a short statement in response to the defeat, saying that the United States has not changed its view that Sharon's plan was "a courageous and important step toward peace." U.S. officials will consult with Israeli officials "about how to move forward," the statement said.

Sharon said that over the next few days, he would consult with his Cabinet and officials of Likud and other parties in his governing coalition to "examine the consequences and the steps that we must take." He did not elaborate, but he did say that "the people of Israel did not vote for me in order to sit on our hands for four years."

Official results released by Likud early Monday showed about 60 percent against the plan and only 40 percent in favor.

Turnout among Likud's roughly 200,000 members was low, with just 52 percent casting ballots.

The result of Sunday's referendum is a defeat for Sharon, who had campaigned hard for the party's support, but the vote does not necessarily kill the disengagement plan.

Also, the relatively low voter turnout could bolster Sharon's expected argument that it does not represent the country.

Vote coincides with attack

Earlier Sunday, a pregnant woman and her four children were killed near a block of Jewish settlements in Gaza. The Popular Resistance -- an amalgamation of several Palestinian groups -- claimed responsibility. (Full story)

Sharon, in a statement after the attack and before voting closed, said the "brutal crime" was meant to stir anger against the withdrawal plan.

"The disengagement plan is a harsh and painful blow to the Palestinians. The Palestinians will do everything to prevent its being accepted," Sharon said.

"Today's terrible murder is the Palestinian way of rejecting and disrupting the plan. We will fight terror and do our utmost to prevent such incidents from recurring and, therefore, I will fight for my plan."

In addition to approving Sharon's plan, Bush has sided with Sharon on a key Palestinian demand -- what Palestinians call the "right of return" to lands taken from them or abandoned in 1948 -- saying Palestinians must settle in a Palestinian state, not Israel.

Bush also signaled support for Sharon's plan to keep some West Bank settlements, saying final negotiations on the West Bank must recognize that "realities on the ground" have changed.

Israel seized the West Bank from Jordan and Gaza from Egypt in 1967 during the Six-Day War and began building settlements soon after in those areas. There are now about 230,000 Israelis living in West Bank settlements, and Gaza is home to about 7,500 Jewish settlers.

Palestinians have criticized Israel's new plan, charging Sharon is attempting to circumvent the negotiations called for in the so-called road map to Middle East peace, which is supported by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

Right-wing and settler parties have threatened to leave Sharon's coalition government. If his government falls apart, Sharon would have the option of seeking to form a new coalition or asking Israel's president to call new elections.

CNN's Yoav Appel and John Vause contributed to this report.


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