Presidential approval boosts Sharon's chances of persuading his own party

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The Independent Online

A triumphant Israeli premier returned home last night to start his campaign among 200,000 members of his Likud Party to persuade them to back the plan to disengage from Gaza and a handful of small settlements in the West Bank.

As a new poll of Likud members showed sharply increasing support within the party for the plan, Ariel Sharon's chances of securing approval for the plan in the 2 May referendum have been significantly boosted by the endorsement of George Bush for his demands for concessions "in return" for evacuating 7,500 Israeli settlers in the Gaza Strip.

Although the far right of Likud, backed by the settlers' movement, will launch a fierce campaign against the plan, Mr Sharon has embarked on an intensive process of winning round dissident ministers and others in the wake of his controversial new accord with the US President.

Israeli journalists travelling with Mr Sharon who asked him about the uniformly hostile Arab and Palestinian reaction to the new agreement reported him as saying with some satisfaction: "They [the Palestinians] have a better understanding of the significance of the President's letter than many Israelis. I said that we were going to deal them a lethal blow, and they were dealt a lethal blow."

Israeli security sources last night said a Palestinian woman carrying a bag containing a 25kg explosive device, apparently intended for a suicide attack, was arrested outside the West Bank settlement of Ariel. The arrest came after Shlomo Aharonishky, the national police commissioner, warned that Palestinian groups would step up their efforts to carry out attacks against Israeli targets following Mr Bush's endorsement of Israel's demands.

"I assume that the Palestinian side is not happy with what happened there," Army Radio quoted him as saying. He said police were stepping up their alert, and were also expecting trouble from right-wing activists and left-wing protesters, in the form of demonstrations and disturbances of the peace.

But, in the outside world, international opposition mounted to Mr Bush's endorsement of Mr Sharon's demands that he rule out the right of return to Israel of Palestinian refugees displaced by the 1948 war and of Mr Sharon's insistence that some of the biggest illegal settlements blocs remain Israeli in any final peace deal.

Jacques Chirac, the French President, rejected yesterday any unilateral moves to change borders in the Middle East after Mr Bush backed Israeli plans to keep parts of the West Bank.

"I have reservations about the unilateral, bilateral questioning of international law," Mr Chirac said during a visit to Algeria. Such moves would set an "unfortunate and dangerous precedent", he said.

The European Union avoided direct criticism of Bush but said any border changes should be agreed with the Palestinians and any Israeli-Palestinian peace deal should include a fair and just deal for refugees. Amid strong condemnation in the Arab world, the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak gave the plan qualified approval.

* In Gaza, 20 Palestinians were wounded yesterday in clashes with Israeli soldiers in the town of Rafah, including 11 people who were hurt when a helicopter fired two missiles.