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Likud Party Members Vote on Sharon's Disengagement Plan - 2004-05-02

Members of Israel's Likud Party have begun voting in a referendum on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan from Palestinian areas. Mr. Sharon is seeking his party's support to unilaterally withdraw troops and Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. The Likud Party opened 443 polling booths across the country early Sunday for the nearly 200,000 members eligible to cast their ballot in the referendum, which Prime Minister Sharon says is vital for Israel's future.

With voting under way, Mr. Sharon made a final appeal to members of the Likud to support his plan, saying a rejection of the proposals would risk harming the country's security.

His appeal came as both supporters and opponents claimed they were confident of victory.

Among those who voted in favor is Yuval Steinitz, the head of the Israeli parliamentary Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

He told reporters that it makes sense for Israel to withdraw from Gaza in order to bolster its claims to hold on to territory elsewhere.

"I think that from a strategic point of view it is correct for Israel to disengage itself from the Palestinian population of Gaza in order to strengthen its position in negotiations about Jerusalem and security zones in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]," he said.

Gilad Erdan, also a Likud member of the Israeli parliament, does not agree.

Mr. Erdan campaigned intensively against the plan, which he says will only encourage more terrorism against Israel.

"We can't see anything good can come out of this plan," he said. "The only thing we see in this plan is that we are transferring the settlers from their houses and we are giving the terror organizations all the good excuses to continue with their activities."

Opinion polls published just ahead of the referendum showed that a growing number of Likud members share the views of Mr. Erdan.

But even if he is defeated in Sunday's vote, Mr. Sharon insists he will not give up on his plan.

Advisors to Mr. Sharon told reporters that regardless of the outcome of the referendum he will bring the plan to the Cabinet, and then to the Parliament, where he believes he will win majority support.