Sharon sets tight timetable for vote on Gaza

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The Independent Online

Ariel Sharon is giving his right-wing critics as little time as possible to drum up opposition to his proposed evacuation of the Gaza Strip and four isolated West Bank settlements.

Ariel Sharon is giving his right-wing critics as little time as possible to drum up opposition to his proposed evacuation of the Gaza Strip and four isolated West Bank settlements.

His Likud party yesterday accepted the Prime Minister's recommendation to hold a referendum of 200,000 grassroots members on 29 April. If they approve the plan, it will be submitted within days to the cabinet and parliament.

It is seen as a fateful choice. "If Sharon loses the referendum," Yossi Verter, a political analyst, wrote yesterday in the liberal daily Haaretz, "disengagement will be off the agenda for good." The detailed plan will be distributed to voters next week, after Mr Sharon has presented it to US President George Bush at the White House on Wednesday. The ballot will ask them to vote a simple yes or no.The timetable allows barely 14 days for active campaigning. Jews are just emerging from the week-long Passover holiday and the rest of April is dotted with memorial days. Independence Day is on the 27th.

Mr Sharon hopes Mr Bush will endorse the Gaza disengagement and acknowledge that, in a final peace agreement, Israel would not have to withdraw all the way to the pre-1967 war West Bank border.

The Prime Minister's advance party is also pressing for an American declaration that hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees would have a right of return to a future Palestinian state, but not to the homes inside Israel from which they fled or were driven in 1948. That is not as much as Mr Sharon wanted, but it will give him ammunition to persuade Likud doubters that disengagement will strengthen Israel's security and diplomatic standing.

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