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Sharon Rejects Call for Referendum on Gaza Withdrawal Plan - 2004-09-14

Israel's Security Cabinet has approved compensation payments for Jewish settlers who will be removed from their homes under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Gaza disengagement plan.

The vote in the Security Cabinet was nine to one in favor of cash advance payments to more than 18,000 settlers in 21 enclaves in the Gaza Strip and four small ones in the West Bank. Under Prime Minister Sharon's disengagement plan, they will have to leave their homes before the end of next year.

Welfare Minister Zevulun Orlev of the National Religious Party cast the dissenting vote.

Mr. Orlev said he cannot see how the government can agree to offer compensation if it has not yet officially approved the overall disengagement plan. He also said the government must not push the settlers into a corner, which he warned could end up in a conflict of brother against brother.

Many settlers have vowed to resist attempts to evacuate them from their homes and have warned of violence. Others have said they will leave before the deadline if they get compensation. Officials say compensation packages would amount to between $200,000 and $500,000 dollars per family.

The vote was a badly needed victory for Mr. Sharon who is facing increasingly vocal opposition to his plan, including from members of his own Likud party and coalition government.

On Sunday tens of thousands of settlers and their supporters rallied in Jerusalem to protest the disengagement. And, there are the political maneuvers from some of Mr. Sharon's rivals.

Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is calling for a nationwide referendum.

Mr. Netanyahu told Israel Radio, he only suggested a referendum to calm tensions and bring people together and prevent deep divisions within society and within the Likud Party.

Mr. Sharon quickly rejected the idea saying a referendum would take too long to organize and would derail the timetable set for the withdrawal.

Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert dismisses pressure for a nationwide vote as political game-playing.

He said that those calling for a referendum should have done so earlier, before the Cabinet set a withdrawal schedule. He added the issue will be brought before the parliament as it should be, adding that a referendum is not the way to go.

According to recent opinion polls, the majority of Israelis support dismantling the settlements. But, Mr. Sharon may be wary of a referendum since he suffered a humiliating defeat when he put the plan to a vote of his Likud Party earlier this year.

The prime minister has vowed to push ahead with disengagement. He is now expected to bring the compensation bill before his full cabinet for approval and then take it to parliament by early November.