JERUSALEM – Israel's ruling Likud (search) party will vote April 29 on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's hotly debated plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements, a party spokesman said Sunday.
Seeking the vote is an enormous gamble for Sharon because his hard-line party is divided over the plan and approval is far from assured. Sharon has pledged to honor the outcome and could come under growing pressure to resign if he loses.
Likud spokesman Shmuel Dahan (search) said the date was chosen at a meeting of the party's Central Election Committee. If he wins approval from Likud's 200,000 members, Sharon reportedly will seek Cabinet and parliamentary approval within days.
The decision on the date came a day before Sharon was to leave for Washington, where he will seek President Bush's endorsement of the plan in a meeting Wednesday. A vote of confidence from Bush would give Sharon an important boost.
Several senior Cabinet ministers have said they will not support Sharon without American backing. Media reports said the Cabinet might vote May 2, to be followed a day later by the rest of parliament.
The extent of U.S. support for the plan remained unclear. Sharon sent several senior aides to Washington over the weekend to work out final details on the agenda of the meeting.
The United States has said it supports the idea of a Gaza (search) pullout, but only as part of the internationally backed "road map" peace plan.
The road map calls for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, with the final borders to be negotiated between the two sides. The plan, however, has been stalled for months amid Israeli and Palestinian violations.
Sharon said Sunday that his plan would help Israel's security, improve its standing in the international community, improve the economy and lift peace efforts.
"There is no doubt that this plan opens a way in the future for a process of peace," Sharon said before meeting with Israel's ceremonial president, Moshe Katsav.
Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they hope to win a U.S. promise that Israel would not have to withdraw fully from the West Bank under a permanent settlement with the Palestinians. Israel also wants assurances that millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants will be barred from returning to Israel.
But a senior Israeli official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Americans are resisting such assurances. Instead, he said, the Americans will say a final settlement has to be reached through negotiations.
Officials are working on letters of understanding to be signed during the meeting, Israeli officials said.
"In the meantime, we are hearing support, understanding and backing for the disengagement plan," said Israel's ambassador to the United States, Danny Ayalon.
The Palestinians also demand that a Gaza pullout be part of the road map. They want a much larger withdrawal from the West Bank.
Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian Cabinet minister, said he had been assured that the United States will not take any steps that prejudice a final settlement.
The Gaza pullout, which includes the evacuation of all 21 settlements in the strip, is among a series of unilateral measures Sharon has proposed to separate Israelis and Palestinians in the absence of a peace agreement. Israeli officials say they remain committed to the road map but that there is no credible negotiating partner on the Palestinian side.
Early Sunday, about 400 demonstrators from Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip protested peacefully outside Sharon's Negev Desert ranch to protest the withdrawal plan.
In new fighting, Israeli soldiers killed a Palestinian in the West Bank town of Akraba, near Nablus, as they arrested two wanted militants, witnesses and hospital officials said. Mohammed Abu Kaber was shot in the head as he looked out the window from a house that troops had surrounded, neighbors said.
The army said Abu Kaber was killed by "warning shots." Soldiers arrested two members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades militia, one of them Abu Kaber's brother, the neighbors said.