- The Washington Times - Monday, March 28, 2005

TEL AVIV — Israel’s parliament yesterday rejected legislation to institute a nationwide referendum on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to evacuate settlements in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, one of two final legislative hurdles in the way of the withdrawal.

The second test comes tomorrow, when the Knesset is expected to approve the state budget by a comfortable margin.

The budget vote is, in effect, a vote of confidence because Israeli law requires new elections if there is no spending plan in place by the end of March.

The referendum bill was defeated by a vote of 72-39 with three abstentions, even though Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lobbied ultra-Orthodox parties to support the legislation.

Mr. Sharon’s chief political rival joined a coalition of settlers and right-wing lawmakers to press for a national vote before evacuating settlements, arguing that such a ballot would avert nationwide trauma over the evacuation.

With no other legal avenue to block the withdrawal in parliament after this week, settlement movement leaders said the battle to resist the evacuation would move into the streets.

The settlers are arranging for tens of thousands of supporters to resist Israeli soldiers charged with carrying out the evacuation.

“Israeli democracy has failed. The Knesset hasn’t listened to the people,” said Effi Eitam, a right-wing legislator who plans to move to Gaza before the start of the evacuation in July. “Now the struggle goes to the extraparliamentary arena.”

The votes mark the latest in a string of political victories for Mr. Sharon, who has been handicapped by a widening rift within his own Likud Party, where ideological opposition to the evacuation is strong.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, though a supporter of the Gaza disengagement, also broke with Mr. Sharon to support the referendum motion.

Crucial support for the prime minister came from the dovish Labor Party — now in coalition with Likud — and members of the parliamentary opposition.

“The people of Israel are moving toward the disengagement,” said Labor parliament member Eitan Cabel. “I don’t say this in happiness, but in the hope of starting a new future.”

Before Mr. Sharon secured the support of the Shinui Party over the weekend, there had been serious doubt about whether he would win this week’s two votes.

The secularist opposition party had threatened to vote against the budget to protest government spending on ultra-Orthodox parties, but ultimately bowed to the sentiment of its constituency, which favors the disengagement.

“If it weren’t for the possibility that the disengagement wouldn’t pass, the budget wouldn’t pass,” said Sam Lehman Wilzig, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.

“What Sharon has done is take a gun, put it to his temple and say, ‘If the budget doesn’t pass, I go down, and we all go down together.’ ”

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