- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 16, 2004

JERUSALEM — Israel’s opposition Labor Party backed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a crucial parliamentary vote yesterday, boosting his plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip.

Labor was sending signals of readiness to join Mr. Sharon’s government to promote the Gaza move, but there was stiff opposition from party members on both sides. Also, a poll showed that the Israeli public was not behind a Sharon-Labor team.

Mr. Sharon lost his parliamentary majority while ramming the Gaza withdrawal proposal through his Cabinet, dismissing one pro-settlement faction while part of another walked out in protest.

The plan calls for removing all 7,500 Jewish settlers and the military from Gaza by the end of 2005. Four small settlements from the northern West Bank also would be evacuated.

Mr. Sharon and his Likud Party had for decades championed settlement construction. Mr. Sharon’s about-face angered his own power base but won praise from his parliamentary opponents.

To shore up Mr. Sharon’s coalition, Labor pledged to abstain in votes of no confidence in the parliament, keeping the government afloat though it lacks a majority.

Labor took its backing a step further yesterday, abstaining on an opposition move to dissolve the parliament and call elections. The proposal was voted down 53-13, with 15 abstentions.

Under Israeli law, a motion to call elections cannot be filed again for six months, removing some of the pressure on the shaky government, though it still could be vulnerable to no-confidence motions.

Labor had said that it would not consider joining Mr. Sharon’s government until the attorney general ruled on a bribery case involving the prime minister. On Tuesday, the case was closed for lack of evidence. Afterward, Labor Party leader Shimon Peres hinted strongly that he wanted to guide his party back into the government.

“The Labor Party has only one consideration — what will promote peace, what will hasten the evacuation of the Gaza Strip,” Mr. Peres said.

However, some Labor lawmakers prefer to try to topple the government. Mr. Sharon and Labor teamed up during Mr. Sharon’s first term as prime minister from 2001 to 2003, but the government broke apart over the issue of funding settlements.

Also, Likud opponents of the Gaza pullout plan are against bringing in their ideological opponents from Labor, which favors evacuating most of the settlements in the West Bank as well as the ones in Gaza.

Mr. Sharon’s plan is to trade the small Gaza settlements for a strengthened hold over large parts of the West Bank — provoking stiff Palestinian criticism.

A poll published yesterday in the Yediot Ahronot daily showed that 37 percent of Israelis supported Labor’s entering the government, while 54 percent were opposed. The poll questioned 500 Israeli adults and had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.

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