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The diplomatic-security cabinet has approved the general principles of a bill to implement the disengagement plan, as well as the payment of advances to settlers in the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank who wish to evacuate voluntarily.

The motions passed yesterday with nine ministers in favor and only one, Labor and Social Affairs Minister Zevulun Orlev (National Religious Party), opposed.

A final draft of the disengagement bill will be given to the ministers on September 26, after which the Ministerial Committee on Legislation will meet to approve it. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon plans to bring the bill to the Knesset for a first reading on November 3, and sometime before this date he will ask the legislature to endorse the cabinet's June 6 decision approving the disengagement plan.

Yesterday's decision authorizes Sela, the government agency responsible for paying compensation to evacuated settlers, to begin paying advances to people who wish to leave early, and to grant loans to businesses that want to relocate. In practice, however, Sela will not be able to start work until the Knesset Finance Committee approves funding for this purpose.

While the committee approved funding to cover Sela's administrative expenses yesterday, it has not yet approved funds for the advances.

Sela director Yonatan Bassi said that he expects to be ready to start paying advances in about two weeks, and has already received inquiries from some 100 families.

The cabinet's decision also states that before the involuntary evacuation begins, the area around the settlements to be evacuated will be closed to all Israelis except those who live there. The decision authorized Sharon to decide when this closure will be imposed, after consulting with the defense and public security ministers.

Orlev demanded that the decision be made by the cabinet, "so [these areas] aren't closed off a month in advance, leaving relatives unable to visit the residents, grandmothers unable to visit their grandchildren," but this proposal was rejected.

Justice Minister Yosef Lapid and Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert both sneered at Orlev's emotional talk about "grandmothers," provoking indignant responses from Orlev and Education Minister Limor Livnat. Finally, Sharon had to intervene to stop the argument between Olmert and Livnat.

Sharon also promised the assembled ministers that once the disengagement - which calls for evacuating all the settlements in Gaza plus four in the northern West Bank - is implemented, no other West Bank settlements will be evacuated unless and until negotiations with the Palestinians resume.

Unsurprisingly, yesterday's cabinet decision was slammed by the rightist factions, who said it of being illegal. MK Aryeh Eldad (National Union) said that no cabinet decision can authorize the payment of so much as a penny as long as the payments do not appear in the budget law approved by the Knesset. Thus any payment of advances is illegal, he charged.

MK Shaul Yahalom (NRP) added that it is illegal to pay advances to settlers who wish to leave when neither the cabinet nor the Knesset has yet approved evacuating their settlements. Though the cabinet approved the disengagement plan in principle on June 6, that resolution explicitly conditioned the actual evacuation of settlements on a further cabinet decision.

Peace Now Secretary-General Yariv Oppenheimer, in contrast, said the decision did not go far enough, and that the government ought to extend the offer of compensation for voluntary evacuation to all settlers, thereby giving all settlers an equal opportunity to return to Israel.

Meanwhile, the Ministerial Committee on Legislation will devote its next meeting to discussing a bill calling for a referendum on the disengagement plan. The bill, submitted by MKs Gilad Erdan and Yuli Edelstein (Likud) and Nissim Ze'ev and Yitzhak Cohen (Shas), would require the referendum to obtain a majority of 60 percent of eligible voters to pass, but Erdan said that he would be willing to lower this to 50 percent if the opposition supported the bill.

Erdan argued that a referendum is essential to prevent an irreversible split in the nation.