Likud rejects Sharon plan

But in a statement released shortly after it was clear that the proposal was lost, Ariel Sharon vowed to “respect” the result of the vote.

“I receive the results of the vote with sorrow but I will respect them,” Sharon said in a statement.

A total of 59.5 percent of the 96,700 Likud members who cast votes rejected the scheme, with less than 40 percent in favour of it.

It is believed many voters were influenved by a Palestinian attack that killed a pregnant Jewish woman and her four small daughters.

The centrepiece of the US-backed “disengagement” plan is a withdrawal of most troops and the removal of all existing 21 Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip.

Around 8,000 Jewish settlers live in the Gaza Strip, along with around 1.5 million Palestinians.

“I will consult the ministers, the Likud and the coalition parties in the coming days to hold in-depth discussions on the consequences of this vote,” said Mr Sharon, however did not elaborate further.

The shock result sparked intense speculation over the Jewish state’s political future.

Some analysts say it could lead to a revamp of the governing coalition, a split in Likud, or even Mr Sharon’s resignation.

Most of the Likud ballots were cast after two Palestinian gunmen shot a pregnant woman from the Gaza Strip settlement bloc of Gush Katif and her four daughters, aged between two and 11.

Israeli soldiers gunned down the two suspects in the attack which was jointly claimed by the Islamic Jihad group and Popular Resistance Committees, a loose alliance of radical groups.

In reaction, Israeli helicopters staged a raid on a Gaza City building housing two radio stations, including one with links to the Islamist movement Hamas, that caused no injuries.

Analysts said the deadly ambush, on residents of a settlement which under Sharon’s plan is to be dismantled by next year, helped sway the balance in favour of its opponents.

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