JERUSALEM (AP) – Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday rejected calls from Jewish settlers to hold a nationwide referendum on his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, escalating an increasingly bitter dispute with former allies who now accuse him of leading Israel toward civil war.

Sunday’s stormy meeting left the two sides deeply at odds as Sharon prepares to present his plan for a parliamentary vote. Sharon, who spent the first three decades of his political career building settlements, now wants to pull out of the entire Gaza Strip and uproot four West Bank settlements next year.

Sharon says his plan will increase Israel’s security after four years of fighting the Palestinians and will help consolidate control over large chunks of the West Bank.

Palestinians charge that the real purpose of Sharon’s plan is a West Bank land grab.

The settlers, once Sharon’s most ardent supporters, accuse him of caving in to Palestinian violence and maintain that any dismantling of settlements is a dangerous precedent.

Settler leader Pinchas Wallerstein called Sunday’s meeting “shameful.”

“We did not get anything out of him. Nothing. Zero,” he said. “The prime minister is not interested at all in our views.”

The settlers, as well as hard-line allies within Sharon’s government, have been pushing the prime minister to hold a national referendum on the withdrawal.

Although opinion polls show a solid majority of Israelis supporting the plan, Sharon opposes a referendum as a delaying tactic by opponents. Legal experts say it could take months to hold a vote.

Sharon already has lost two separate votes on his plan – both in his Likud Party – following intense campaigning by the settlers.

Sharon has pledged to put his disengagement plan to a parliamentary vote Oct. 25. Despite the rift in the Likud, Sharon is expected to prevail with the backing of dovish opposition parties.

Wallerstein pledged to use all democratic means to fight the plan.

“We are heading toward a total lack of dialogue. This requires opposition with all force,” he said.

Sharon told the settlers that he understands their anguish but pledged to push forward with his plan, according to participants.

“You don’t represent the public more than me or any other. I don’t intend to concede to these threats,” Sharon was quoted as telling the settler leaders.

Sharon said he was especially concerned by an influential rabbi’s recent call for Orthodox Jewish soldiers to refuse orders to evacuate the settlements. Dozens of lower-ranking rabbis have signed on to the call.

“I heard the talk of rabbis,” Sharon was quoted as saying. “I’m against using threats of a split, refusing orders and civil war.”

The threat of extremist violence is very sensitive in Israel. In 1995, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an ultranationalist Jew opposed to Rabin’s peacemaking with the Palestinians.

Sharon had not met officially with settler leaders since he started talking about evacuating settlements last year.

Cabinet minister Limor Livnat suggested to Sharon earlier Sunday that the disengagement legislation being presented to parliament should make the withdrawal conditional on a referendum.

“I heard yesterday night that there is a good chance that they (the settlers) could accept such a formula … in order to prevent a rift in the nation … or even a civil war,” Livnat told Israel Radio before meeting Sharon.

Settlers also are pushing for early elections instead of the currently scheduled November 2006 vote. Sharon lost his parliamentary majority during the debate over the plan and has a shaky hold on power.

Opposition Labor Party leader Shimon Peres denounced the referendum idea as a stalling tactic.

At a party meeting, Peres said Labor would “not take part in maneuvers and ruses by a minority of the people that would leave us stuck in Gaza.” Labor favors an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and most of the West Bank in exchange for peace.

Sharon pushed ahead with the planned withdrawal just as the army ended a broad operation in the northern Gaza Strip aimed at preventing militants from firing homemade rockets at Israeli towns.

The constant rocket fire from Gaza, which has killed four Israelis, three of them children, threatens to turn even supportive Israelis against the evacuation plan.

At least 110 Palestinians – including dozens of civilians – were killed during the 17-day incursion, making it the bloodiest military offensive in northern Gaza in four years of fighting.

At a Cabinet meeting Sunday, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said the army pulled back from northern Gaza because “the main goals of the operations were achieved,” but the military is ready to move back in if rocket fire resumes, according to a government statement issued after the meeting.

Also Sunday, a Palestinian man died of his wounds sustained in an explosion in the Gaza Strip town of Rafah last week, hospital officials said. Palestinians said the army had fired a missile at a building, but the army said the blast was caused when a bomb being prepared by militants blew up prematurely.

AP-ES-10-17-04 2002EDT

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