After a vocal debate in the Knesset, the bill was thrown out by a landslide majority of 72 to 39, removing the last obstacle to the pullout.

The result is a victory for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and deals a severe blow to those staunchly opposed to withdrawal.

A referendum would have seriously delayed the evacuation of 8,000 settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip, whose removal has already been sanctioned by parliament and the cabinet.

Prime Minister Sharon has repeatedly rejected calls for a national vote as a stalling tactic.

But the political manoeuvring over the referendum saw tension soar within Sharon’s right-wing Likud party, a third of which opposes the Gaza withdrawal, in a stand-off that has dogged the premier for months.

Likud rebels, including Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and settler lobby groups had desperately tried to persuade undecided MPs to back the referendum bill.

Demoralised by the defeat, settlers said they would move their fight into the streets, promising to bring 100,000 protesters to the settlements slated for evacuation to prevent the withdrawal.

Settlers, thousands of whom protested near the Knesset, are pinning their hopes on a Supreme Court challenge to the planned withdrawal.

Prime Minister Sharon, a masterful political survivor, has already crushed the last serious political threat to his planned evacuation by securing enough support to get the 2005 state budget through parliament.

He’s due to present the details of his pullout strategy to US President George W Bush at the president’s Texas ranch on April 11.

The evacuation of the Gaza Strip Jewish settlements and Israeli troops, and of four isolated settlements in the northern West Bank, is scheduled to begin on July 20.

Opinion polls show a large majority of Israelis back the withdrawal plan.

But Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie said no workable Palestinian state could be established as long as Israel kept its settlements in the occupied West Bank.

“These blocs, which the American administration has legitimised by giving its support to Israel, make the creation of a viable Palestinian state impossible,” he said.

His comments came a day after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reiterated support for Jerusalem’s plans to keep large Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank after the withdrawal.

“This policy is completely incomprehensible,” Qureia told reporters.

Israeli officials have confirmed plans to build 3,650 homes around the Maaleh Adumim settlement near Jerusalem.

With the expansion and the construction of a separation barrier, Israel would effectively cut off east Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ intended capital, from a future state in the West Bank.

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