Sharon slapped down his rebellious minister, insisting that there was no question that his plan to unilaterally withdraw Israeli settlements from Gaza - unpopular with his ruling Likud party - would not go forward.

Under international law, Jewish settlements in occupied Gaza and West Bank are deemed illegal.
  
"There will be no referendum on the disengagement plan," he was quoted as saying. "The proposals on this subject resemble threats and I never yield to threats." 
  
Speaking in a television interview on Tuesday night, the Israeli foreign minister insisted that he did not want to wreck the disengagement plan but said that a referendum would help end divisions within the country. 
  
Ministers declaration

"I intend to lead a public, parliamentary and political initiative in favour of a referendum," Shalom said, adding, "I believe general agreement should be obtained from the people to avoid a serious struggle." 

"I intend to lead a public, parliamentary and political initiative in favour of a referendum"

Silvan Shalom,
Israeli Foreign Minister

Shalom was conspicuous by his absence at Tuesday's summit between Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas in Egypt where the Israeli premier reiterated that he was "absolutely determined to implement the disengagement plan".
  
Under the terms of the plan, the principles of which have already been approved by parliament, all 21 Israeli settlements in Gaza (which is home to over a million Palestinians) should be evacuated by September 2005.

Four small Jewish enclaves in the northern West Bank are also to be dismantled.
  
Controversial pullout

In turn, Sharon is hoping his plan will ease pressure on Israel to implement a much wider evacuation in other parts of the West Bank where the vast majority of the some 245,000 settlers live. 
  

Israeli settlers strongly oppose
Sharon's plans to abandon Gaza

Interior Minister Ophir Pines said the push for a referendum was designed to sabotage the plan, rather than prevent a rift in the country. 
     
In contrast, Shaul Goldstein, a settler leader from the Gush Etzion settlement bloc in the West Bank, insisted that only a referendum could lead to calm.
  
"Demand for a referendum crosses party lines," Goldstein said.

"And the prime minister is afraid of a referendum, and is running away from it, and all his accelerated urgency and moves attest to the fact that he knows that the people are not in favour of disengagement."