- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 9, 2004

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon easily won a crucial party vote to reinforce his shaky government and carry out his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, party officials announced yesterday.

Mr. Sharon proposed inviting the dovish Labor Party and Orthodox Jewish parties to join his government, ensuring a solid majority for his pullout plan in the face of opposition from his Likud Party.

Israel Katz, a Cabinet minister, announced that the final count of the vote in the Likud Central Committee was 62 percent in favor of Mr. Sharon’s proposal and 38 percent against.

A loss in the committee could have forced new elections and jeopardized the Gaza withdrawal — a centerpiece of efforts to restart peace talks with the Palestinians in the wake of Yasser Arafat’s death.

The win clears the way to adding Labor, a partner solidly in favor of the pullout and the resumption of peace negotiations.

There was some opposition among Labor activists to joining their archrival Mr. Sharon in another government, after their first joint government broke up in 2002. However, party leader Shimon Peres strongly favored such a move.

The Likud committee voted in August against inviting Labor to join the government. But after Mr. Sharon fired a key coalition partner for voting against his budget on Dec. 1, his coalition became more tenuous than ever. He had warned that the choice was Labor or elections.

A lengthy electoral campaign would have delayed, if not thwarted, his plan to withdraw from Gaza and four West Bank settlements next year.

Worried about a low turnout that would favor his opponents, Mr. Sharon made a rare early morning appeal to his backers.

“I want to say that we are standing before great opportunities and events that could be historical, and I won’t let anything or anyone harm the opportunity of the state of Israel to take advantage of these opportunities,” he told Army Radio.

Mr. Sharon defied his party and his ideology when he presented his plan to remove all 21 Jewish settlements from Gaza and four small ones from the West Bank. The Likud rank and file overwhelmingly voted against the withdrawal in a party referendum on May 2. Mr. Sharon ignored the vote and pressed ahead.

Likud has 40 seats in the 120-member parliament, but up to half the party’s members oppose the Gaza withdrawal. Without Labor’s 21 votes and at least one smaller ultra-Orthodox Jewish party for insurance against the Likud rebels, Mr. Sharon could lose a no-confidence vote at any time and be voted out of office.

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