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Prime Minister Ariel Sharon believes he will be able to resist international pressure for a further withdrawal from the West Bank "the day after" the upcoming pullout.

In a pre-Passover interview with Haaretz yesterday, Sharon said the disengagement will definitely proceed but that no decision had been made on postponing the pullout until after the Tisha B'Av fast on August 14. He added that he would be discussing the matter with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.

In an effort to curry favor with the settlers, the prime minister said they were "a leading group" that still faced important national tasks in settling the Negev, Galilee and Judea.

"There, we are building 1,000 apartments in Betar Illit and hundreds of apartments in Ma'aleh Admumim," Sharon said.

The prime minister said he had agreed to consider postponing the pullout from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank from the July 20 date, and supported moving the Gaza Strip settlers en masse to Nitzanim because he wanted to make the disengagement easier and help to mend the rift in the nation.

Sharon said that Israel would insist after the pullout that the Palestinian Authority meet all its security obligations, and dismantle the terrorist organizations as a condition for moving ahead with the road map peace plan.

Sharon also commented on the demographic problem - whose existence he has denied in the past - saying that it had played a decisive role in the route of the separation fence.

"Had we wanted to build the fence on the border of the security zone, known today as Area C, the fence would have been a lot further to the east," he said. "But such a move would have left hundreds of thousands of Palestinians inside the fence, and these Palestinians would have eventually joined forces with Arab Israelis, and then it would certainly have been a major problem."