Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday rejected calls by settler leaders to let the public decide on the disengagement plan either through new elections or by means of a referendum.

Meeting with leaders of the Yesha Council of settlers for the first time since announcing his pullout plan, Sharon stressed that Israel was under intense international pressure and that it had to implement the disengagement plan and evacuate the illegal outposts.

"I am making an effort to save as much as possible," the prime minister said at the start of the meeting, pointing out the U.S. position, as well as that of the rest of the world and the political parties in Israel.

"Don't profess to represent the nation more than I do," Sharon said to the settler leaders, adding: "I have no intention of capitulating to the threats of the rabbis."

Last week, Rabbi Avraham Shapira, a leading religious Zionist rabbi, urged soldiers to refuse to evacuate settlements; and on Friday, 60 other prominent religious Zionist rabbis joined his call.

During the course of yesterday's meeting, the Yesha Council leaders accused Sharon of lethally poisoning not only Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip but all of the settlements throughout the West Bank too. They defined the meeting as "charged and difficult," noting they were up against "a solid wall and a prime minister who could drag the nation into an internal war, a civil war." It was "a dialogue of the deaf," said settler leader Pinhas Wallerstein.

Spokesman for the Gush Katif Regional Council Eran Sternberg said last night that "in light of Sharon's imperviousness," it was doubtful that representatives of the Gaza settlements would attend the meeting planned with him for tomorrow, noting that a final decision on the matter would be taken this evening.

The settler leaders said the prime minister was continuing to behave like "a destructive dictator."

Spokesman for the Yesha Council Yehoshua Mor Yosef said that the movement would continue to apply pressure on politicians to bring the disengagement plan to the public, adding that "Sharon is disengaging from the nation."

Sharon began yesterday's meeting with a brief address in which he urged the settler leaders to "lay off the army and the security forces. They are not party to the dispute with you and you must stop speaking about disobeying orders. It could lead to anarchy ... I will not give in to threats. I have the rabbis who are talking about a rupture. We won't balk at your threats. I have absolute freedom and a mandate to take action.

"This plan is important, and without it, we'd be facing a very big crisis. I understand that it pains you. Believe me, it pains me too; but the difference between us is that I know what awaits us if we do not carry out the plan. The responsibility rests with me. I have to make decisions and hold the country together.

"Gush Katif wouldn't remain in our hands under any plan; and therefore, with all the pain, we are talking about a reasonable concession that enhances our positions in other areas. This plan also betters our situation vis-a-vis our ability to take military action against the terror. Imagine what the operation in Gaza would look like without this plan. Today, we are enjoying freedom of military action against the terror."

Sharon explained his objection to a referendum by saying that it would lead to demands for more referendums on a variety of issues such as the status of Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, matters of kashrut, Shabbat, marriage laws and more.

Yesterday's meeting came just hours after Sharon rejected a compromise proposal for a referendum on his disengagement plan. Education Minister Limor Livnat proposed that Sharon agree to an unwanted referendum on the plan to withdraw from the entire Gaza Strip and parts of the northern West Bank, on the condition that the settlement movement would abide by the results of the poll.

"[The prime minister] listened to Limor Livnat's proposal and he is still determined not to hold a referendum," Sharon's spokesman, Asaf Shariv, after the meeting.

Livnat suggested that if the Yesha Council agreed to abide by the results of the poll, Sharon would bring the disengagement to the Knesset for approval on October 25 as planned, but the resolution would condition its implementation on the plan passing a referendum.

Such a move would enable Sharon to complete all the preparations for withdrawal while a Basic Law on referendums was being legislated, thereby ensuring that the referendum would not disrupt his timetable, she said.

Livnat, who this weekend joined the growing list of Likud ministers urging Sharon to hold a referendum, met with settler leaders Saturday night to determine what they would be willing to promise in exchange for a referendum. She said the meeting went well and that all participants wanted to prevent a public rift. "I heard [Saturday night] that there is a good chance that [the settlers] could accept such a formula ... in order to prevent a rift in the nation ... or even a civil war," Livnat said before her meeting with Sharon yesterday.

The Likud Knesset faction will convene today, with Sharon in attendance, for a meeting that is expected to be stormy and tense, with the referendum issue on the agenda. Most of the Likud faction, including seven ministers, are in favor of a referendum on the disengagement plan. Faction chairman MK Gideon Sa'ar will decide, presumably during the course of the meeting, whether to hold a vote on the matter.

A faction vote carries no weight in terms of the party constitution, but would certainly mean added pressure on Sharon. Sources at the Prime Minister's Office reiterated yesterday that Sharon was adamant in his opposition to a referendum.

The Likud rebels, who oppose the disengagement plan, will meet today in the office of Minister Uzi Landau prior to the faction meeting. The rebels are also upping their pressure on the prime minister and have started to collect signatures of Likud MKs on a letter urging Sharon to hold a referendum and undertaking to honor its outcome.

Landau said yesterday that a referendum was needed to preserve unity among the Likud and the nation.