(KRT) JERUSALEM Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party handed him a resounding political defeat Sunday, overwhelmingly rejecting his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and remove four settlements in the West Bank.
The vote in a party referendum threw Israeli politics into turmoil and raised questions about the future of the withdrawal plan, backed last month by President Bush at White House meeting with Sharon.
It was unclear how Sharon would proceed, and whether the Likud vote would lead to a split in the party, a Cabinet reshuffle or perhaps new elections.
With 90 percent of the votes counted early Monday, the results stood at 59.8 percent against the plan, and 39.5 percent in favor, Israel Radio reported.
The no vote was apparently boosted by a roadside ambush Sunday in the Gaza Strip, in which Palestinian gunmen killed a pregnant Israeli woman and her four daughters as they traveled from their settlement to campaign against the withdrawal plan.
Israel hit back with a strike on a Hamas radio station in Gaza City. Hours later, helicopter-fired missiles killed four Palestinian militants in the West Bank city of Nablus.
Sharon, who portrayed the Likud referendum as a vote of confidence in him, made clear in a statement released by his office that he has no intention of stepping down.
"I respect the results," Sharon said, adding that he would discuss his next moves with Cabinet ministers, the Likud faction in parliament and coalition partners.
"One thing is clear to me the people of Israel did not elect me to sit and do nothing for four years," Sharon added. "I was elected to find the way to bring this nation the quiet, security and peace that it so deserves. I intend to continue leading the State of Israel. ... It is not an easy task, but I intend to carry it out."
In Washington, a White House spokesman said the United States still supports the withdrawal plan and that consultations will be held soon with Sharon.
"Our view has not changed: The president welcomed Prime Minister Sharon's plan to withdraw settlements from Gaza and part of the West Bank as a courageous and important step toward peace," said the spokesman, Scott McClellan.
Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a strong supporter of the withdrawal plan, said that it remained the only option. "This move cannot be stopped, and there is no other," Olmert said.
But David Levy, a Likud lawmaker who campaigned against the plan, said it should be "removed from the agenda."
Uzi Landau, a hard-line Cabinet minister from Likud who led the opposition to the plan, said the referendum result showed that Likud "has remained true to its principles."
The party has traditionally backed Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and supported the establishment of Jewish settlements there. Sharon's "disengagement plan" to remove the 7,800 Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip and evacuate the four West Bank settlements was a departure from the longstanding Likud vision of a "Greater Israel."
But only 50 percent of the 193,000 eligible Likud voters cast ballots in the referendum, leading critics to question the significance of the vote against the withdrawal, which opinion surveys have shown enjoys the support of a majority of Israelis.
"It was not elections that were held this evening, but a vote in a party, a quarter of whose members decided against the disengagement," said Justice Minister Yosef Lapid, the leader of the centrist Shinui party. "This does not obligate the government, it does not obligate parliament, it does not obligate Shinui and it does not obligate me."
Lapid demanded last week that the plan be brought to a vote in the Cabinet, regardless of the referendum result.
Shimon Peres, head of the opposition Labor party, said the withdrawal plan should be brought to parliament if it was assured a majority there, and if not, there should be new elections.
Sharon's stinging defeat came after opponents of the withdrawal, led by the settlers from the Gaza Strip, waged a well-organized grass-roots campaign, visiting Likud members to persuade them to vote against the plan, blanketing major intersections with banners and distributing leaflets and bumper stickers to motorists.
The campaign overcame Sharon's attempt to win support through media interviews highlighting assurances he received from Bush endorsing Israel's retention of large West Bank settlements in a final peace deal and ruling out a return to Israel of Palestinian refugees.
Sunday's deadly attack on the settlers in Gaza appeared to have generated a sympathy vote that boosted opposition to the withdrawal plan, said Mina Tzemach, a pollster who surveyed voters for Channel Two television.
The attack killed Tali Hatuel, 34, who was eight months pregnant, and her four daughters, ages 2 to 11, as she drove on a road leading from the Katif settlement to the Kissufim crossing into Israel.
Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, the chief of the army's southern command, said that gunmen opened fire on military positions as two attackers approached the road and began firing at vehicles. When a white station wagon carrying the Hatuels was hit and spun off the road, the attackers closed in, raking the car with gunfire and killing everyone inside, the police said.
A motorist from Israel was wounded when his car was hit by gunfire as tried to drive away from the area. Soldiers who rushed to the scene killed the attackers after a brief firefight, the military said. Two soldiers were wounded.
The blood-stained, bullet-riddled car of the Hatuel family carried a poster on its hood calling on Likud voters to vote against the Gaza withdrawal plan. A bumper sticker said: "Uprooting settlements is a victory for terror."
The militant Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, an umbrella group of armed militants, claimed responsibility for what they called the "heroic" attack. They said it was retaliation for Israel's recent killings of the founder of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, and the leader appointed to replace him in Gaza, Abdel Aziz Rantisi.
Hours later, Israeli helicopters fired missiles at an apartment building housing a Hamas radio station in Gaza City, lightly injuring at least two people, according to reports.
In the West Bank, missiles struck a car in Nablus, killing four militants from Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant offshoot of Yasser Arafat's mainstream Fatah faction, Palestinian officials said.