Tuesday, October 26, 2004

JERUSALEM — Israel’s parliament yesterday approved Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank enclaves, voting 67-45 over stiff opposition from Mr. Sharon’s own Likud Party.

Within minutes of the historic vote — which included seven abstentions — he was confronted with a new challenge from Likud rival Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr. Netanyahu, a former prime minister and current finance minister, said he would resign within two weeks unless Mr. Sharon reconsidered his opposition to holding a national referendum on the pullback plan.

The final go-ahead for the evacuation won’t come before Israel’s Cabinet until March, but the legislation approved yesterday allows the government to begin laying the foundation for the move with steps such as offering compensation packages to thousands of settlers who will be relocated.

“This is a victory for Ariel Sharon, and the position that we need to disengage from Gaza,” said Meir Sheetrit, a minister without portfolio. “We have nothing to look for in Gaza. With all the pain involved, we need to move forward.”

In the run-up to the balloting yesterday, Israeli newspapers drew comparisons with Knesset ratifications in past decades for peace treaties with Egypt and the Palestinians.

And yet Mr. Sharon’s plan is unilateral without any tangible commitment to an end to four years of fighting with the Palestinians.

The Palestinian Authority has welcomed the pullback, even as it criticized Mr. Sharon for refusing to negotiate a withdrawal. Militant groups such as Hamas hailed the decision as a triumph of their strategy of violence.

“Some people understand that without the resistance and intifada, Sharon would not have thought about leaving,” said Ghazi Hamad, an editor of an Islamic newspaper affiliated with Hamas. “We think that if Israel withdraws from any millimeter, it’s considered a victory.”

Outside the parliament, thousands of settler supporters protested the decision by forming a human chain around the government compound.

The most problematic resistance for Mr. Sharon on the pullout has come from his own party.

After the vote, Mr. Sharon dismissed Likud’s Uzi Landau — a minister without portfolio who has led a party insurgency against the prime minister for months — signaling zero tolerance for Cabinet members who don’t support the government in parliamentary votes.

Mr. Netanyahu seemed to have chosen the same path until he entered the Knesset floor moments before the closing of the balloting to cast a vote in favor.

“The fate of Israel depends on whether there will be a referendum,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

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