Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is coming under growing pressure from his own faction to hold a national referendum on the disengagement plan.

But Sharon, speaking to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee yesterday, said he vehemently opposes the idea. "I have yet to hear any disengagement opponent announce that if there is a referendum and the disengagement wins a majority, he will accept it and withdraw his opposition," he said. "A referendum will moderate only the moderate right. It will not change the potential for violence among the extreme right ... because the opposition to disengagement on the extreme right is not due to the democratic process, but to conceding parts of the Land of Israel."

Moreover, Sharon said, it would take at least a year to conduct a referendum, meaning the disengagement would be pushed off until 2006, which is an election year.

Prominent Likud ministers and MKs who have come out in favor of a referendum now include Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz, coalition chairman Gideon Sa'ar and the entire group of Likud "rebels" headed by Minister Uzi Landau. Moreover, Justice Minister Yosef Lapid - who heads Sharon's largest coalition partner, Shinui - also backs the idea, as does Sharon's other coalition partner, the National Religious Party.

But Sharon's bureau retorted that many equally senior Likud ministers agree that the idea is just a time-waster that will not increase support for the plan. As examples, bureau officials cited Shaul Mofaz, Ehud Olmert, Gideon Ezra and Tzipi Livni.

Sharon will bring the cabinet's decision on the disengagement plan to the Knesset for approval on October 25, and Likud MKs believe that pressure for a referendum will grow as the vote approaches. But Sharon prefers to rely on support from the Labor Party to pass the plan, and to that end has scheduled meetings with several senior Labor MKs next week. He also met yesterday with members of United Torah Judaism to request that faction's support, but UTJ has not yet responded.

But even as he comes under growing pressure from his own party, Sharon won a small victory yesterday when the latest public protest against the disengagement - the "100 demonstrations" - largely flopped. Settlers had hoped that the 100 demonstrations, held simultaneously in cities throughout the country, would be a show of force.

Sparse attendance

Instead, they were sparsely attended - the main rally in Jerusalem drew only some 3,000 people - and even Bentzi Lieberman of the Yesha Council of settlements, who termed the event "a great success," admitted that no more than 150,000 people participated, whereas organizers had hoped for 500,000.

The demonstrations appeared to suffer from several problems, ranging from the logistical difficulty of organizing so many simultaneous events to a growing weariness among regular participants from having been asked to attend protest events so often.

"Of course there's weariness. It isn't easy to come to all these demonstrations," said Miriam, who came with some of her student friends.

Last night's event was the fifth mass event organized by disengagement opponents since February. Others included a highly successful "human chain" from Gaza's Gush Katif settlements to Jerusalem and an equally successful door-to-door campaign to persuade Likud members to vote against the plan in an internal party referendum in May.

Speaking to the Knesset Foreign Affairs Committee, Sharon said the evacuation of settlers from Gaza and the northern West Bank will begin in May or June, 2005 and last about 12 weeks. The entire disengagement, including the Israel Defense Forces' redeployment outside the Gaza Strip, will be finished by the end of 2005, he said.

"The withdrawal from Gaza will be implemented, and I hope that this step will lead to us spending less time at cemeteries," Sharon told the committee in his first appearance there in months.

When MK Shaul Yahalom (NRP) pointed out that the cabinet has not yet approved the evacuation of settlements, and is only slated to do so in March, Sharon responded angrily: "The cabinet decision of June 6 this year speaks of leaving Gaza. Let there be no mistake. On October 25 I will bring the cabinet's decision on the disengagement plan to the Knesset for approval. By March 1 the `evacuation-compensation' law will pass its second and third Knesset readings."

He said the defense establishment is already in the advanced stage of preparations for the withdrawal, and Israel has also begun talks with Egypt on security issues, mainly cooperation in preventing weapons smuggling. Recently, he added, Egyptian efforts to stop the smuggling have improved.

Egypt `could have done more'

Sharon criticized Egypt over last week's terror attacks in Sinai, saying it "could have done more" to protect the tourists, but praised its cooperation in evacuating the wounded. He also denied a statement by Committee Chairman Yuval Steinitz on Wednesday that an IDF exercise in the south was aimed, among other things, at preparing to counter an Egyptian attack.

Regarding the recent Haaretz interview in which his adviser, Dov Weisglass, said that the disengagement was meant to freeze the road map, Sharon declared: "That is not my position and not the government's position." Nevertheless, he said, he has no intention of firing Weisglass.