- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 16, 2005

TEL AVIV — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank was ratified yesterday by Israel’s parliament.

The landmark legislation to dismantle Jewish settlements, approved by a 59-40 vote with five abstentions, empowers Mr. Sharon to order evacuation beginning five months after Cabinet approval, scheduled for Sunday. Called the “evacuation-compensation” law, it also sets aside nearly $1 billion to enable about 9,000 settlers to relocate.

“I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say this is dramatic,” said Eitan Cabel, a parliament member from the Labor Party. “The old consensus that we’ll never evacuate territories has been broken.”

The legislation lays out a framework for Israel’s first withdrawal from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since the territories were captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

After sponsoring the freewheeling expansion of settlements in the Palestinian territories throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Mr. Sharon now says they must be whittled down to improve Israeli security after four years of conflict with the Palestinians.

By calling for the evacuation of Israeli communities established alongside Palestinian cites, the legislation is a blow to settlers and right-wing ideologues who aspired to retain control of biblical lands considered part of “greater Israel.” The breakdown of the vote in Israel’s parliament, or Knesset, reflected the awkward political coalition created by Mr. Sharon’s disengagement initiative, which was announced a year ago.

Mr. Sharon won critical support from far-left and Arab parties who once vilified him as an unrepentant hawk. Meanwhile, the opposition included 17 members of the prime minister’s Likud Party, who have accused Mr. Sharon of betraying the Likud’s core constituency.

“It’s a bankrupting of the national camp,” said Michael Ratzon, a member of parliament from Likud who opposes the prime minister. “Ariel Sharon with his own hands is carrying out a plan to expel Jews from their homes.”

But the disengagement plan has been embraced by the United States and the Palestinians, who think the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip could help jump-start the “road map” plan to resume negotiations toward an independent Palestinian state.

“Any place they withdraw from the occupied Palestinian territories, we welcome,” said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. “We hope this is a snowball towards the full withdrawal of the Israelis from the territories they occupied in 1967 and the dawn of a two-state solution.”

The Likud upstarts and settler leaders have assailed the disengagement plan as illegitimate and are challenging Mr. Sharon to put the initiative to a national referendum or stand in new elections.

So far, the prime minister has ignored the appeal, and yesterday, the parliament rejected an amendment to the disengagement law that would have delayed implementation to allow the Knesset to consider legislation for a national referendum.

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