Sharon clears new hurdle on Gaza planParliament rejects referendum that pullout foes sought
JERUSALEM Prime Minister Ariel Sharon secured an important victory on Monday as Parliament soundly rejected a national referendum on his Gaza Strip withdrawal plan that could have delayed or blocked his efforts to evacuate Jewish settlers.
After a year of fierce debates with former allies and incessant political maneuvering, Sharon appears set to overcome the final political barriers this week to the Gaza pullout. He intends to remove more than 8,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza in an operation set to begin in July and last about a month.
The prime minister effectively won approval for his Gaza plan last month when the cabinet gave its consent. The proposal Monday represented one of two last-ditch attempts by opponents seeking to block the plan in the Parliament, or Knesset.
In a result that was expected, Parliament voted 72 to 39 against a national referendum on the Gaza withdrawal. Opponents of the Gaza pullout have demanded a plebiscite despite opinion polls that consistently show that at least two-thirds of Israelis back Sharon's plan.
The prime minister has staunchly rejected a referendum, calling it a stalling tactic by opponents of the withdrawal.
Members of Sharon's own party, Likud, led the push for a referendum, including Benjamin Netanyahu, the finance minister, and Silvan Shalom, the foreign minister. Both ministers voted in favor of the referendum, and argue that such a vote is the best way to prevent further divisions in Israeli society.
Shortly after the Parliament's vote, lawmakers began a debate on the state budget for 2005, which must pass by Thursday, the last day of March. If not, the government automatically falls, forcing new elections within 90 days.
Legislators opposing the Gaza withdrawal are hoping to sink Sharon's government - and the Gaza pullout - by voting down the budget.
At least 13 of the 40 parliamentary members from Sharon's party plan to vote against the budget. However, Sharon has cobbled together an ad hoc majority, winning pledges of budget support from a number of opposition legislators.
Barring any last-minute surprises, the budget is expected to win parliamentary approval Tuesday or Wednesday. That would ensure the survival of Sharon's government, at least in the near term, and remove the last political obstacle to the Gaza withdrawal.
However, opponents say they will now take to the streets.
Several thousand opponents of the Gaza withdrawal gathered Monday outside the Parliament, though their numbers were relatively small compared with several massive demonstrations organized by settlers and their supporters.
Sharon "has ruined the chances of bringing the disengagement plan to the people for a decision and thus prevent a violent confrontation and a civil war," the Yesha Council, the main group representing settlers, said in a statement following Monday's parliamentary vote.
Sharon says he sees no future for the Jewish settlers who live in heavily guarded enclaves in Gaza. The 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza outnumber the settlers by a ratio of nearly 150 to one.
However, Sharon, a leading proponent of settlement building for decades, is simultaneously working to strengthen Israel's hold on the much larger settlements in the West Bank, where some 230,000 settlers live.
In a related development, the Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, sharply criticized recent comments by U.S. officials regarding the future of Jewish settlements. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reiterated President George W. Bush's position that an Israeli-Palestinian settlement will have to factor in the large number of settlers.
"The American view is that while we will not prejudice the outcome of final-status negotiations, the changes on the ground, the existing major Israeli population centers, will have to be taken into account in any final status negotiations," Rice said in remarks broadcast Sunday on Israeli radio.
Both Israel and the Palestinians interpret this to mean that the United States supports Israel keeping large settlements blocs in the West Bank.
"This policy is completely incomprehensible," Qurei told reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah. "These blocs, which the American administration has legitimized by giving its support to Israel, make the creation of a viable Palestinian state impossible."
The Palestinians are seeking a state in all of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, land Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War and has since occupied.
Also Monday, Israeli soldiers arrested eight supporters of the Islamic Jihad on suspicion they were attempting to build homemade rockets near the West Bank town of Jenin, the military said.