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Sharon wins OK on Gaza

Vote to dismantle settlements laden with symbolism

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon receives congratulations from members of the Knesset Tuesday.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon receives congratulations from members of the Knesset Tuesday.
Associated Press

JERUSALEM — Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, won what he called the most important vote of his political life on Tuesday night, as the Israeli Parliament approved his plan to remove all Israeli settlements from Gaza.

The vote, in an atmosphere of high drama and tension, with thousands of settlers demonstrating outside, was 67-45, with seven abstentions and one legislator absent because of illness.

The vote was narrower than Sharon had hoped, splitting his Likud Party and governing coalition and leaving him with difficult choices about whether to restructure his government, call new elections or both.

While a defeat would have doomed Sharon and his Gaza plan, a victory does not guarantee the plan will be enacted. Still, the vote was an occasion of profound symbolism — the first time Israel has agreed to dismantle settlements in Gaza, 21 of them, and the West Bank, though only four tiny ones there will go. Many Israelis, even some who are not religious, consider both those areas part of the historic Jewish homeland.

Asher Susser, the director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East Studies, said, "This is one of the most historically important moments in Israel's history since 1948, and certainly since 1967."

He added, "This is not about Gaza — this is the opening of a major debate about Israel's soul.

We are for the first time since 1967 discussing what Israel is, how it shall be governed and how we define ourselves. Is Israel a secular democratic state or a state governed by Jewish religious law? We are debating the borders of Israel, its long-term survivability and the very nature of the Jewish state."

A large part of Sharon's own Likud Party, which once used a slogan — "Not one inch!" — about its refusal to return territory, opposes the plan and will continue to try to block it.

After the vote, Sharon's primary internal rival, his finance minister and former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said he and three other ministers would resign from the government if Sharon did not agree within 14 days to hold a national referendum on the Gaza plan. Netanyahu, who voted stony-faced for the plan before his ultimatum, said: "We do not wish to topple anyone. We do wish, however, to give unity a chance."

But a close adviser to Sharon said the prime minister would not allow a referendum to delay the plan and said Netanyahu was bluffing, accusing him of "playing politics." "Sharon is not playing games, and he is armed with the Knesset vote and wide popular support, and he will concentrate on the real interests and hopes of the Jewish people to live in a democratic, Jewish homeland," the adviser said.

Sharon, said the adviser, would continue to govern with whatever majority he could muster.

Netanyahu came in late to the session before casting his yes vote, along with the foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, and the education minister, Limor Livnat, who had been meeting to try to force a referendum. After Netanyahu's vote was recorded, a very relieved vice prime minister, Ehud Olmert, burst into laughter, but Sharon's face was almost as stony as that of his rival.

Minutes later, Livnat, Danny Naveh and Yisrael Katz joined Netanyahu in threatening resignation. Netanyahu explained their votes as made "in order not to put Mr. Sharon on the spot."

Sharon believes a referendum would only delay the withdrawal from Gaza, and he threatened to fire any minister who voted against him. Two who did were both fired within minutes. They were Uzi Landau, a minister without a portfolio, and the deputy internal security minister, Michael Ratzon.

The religious right also opposes the plan, saying it is a sin to pull Jews from their homes and that Gaza is part of land given to Jews by God. Sharon hoped for votes from some of the religious parties; in the end, he got only one, from a rabbi, Michael Melchior, whose party is affiliated with Labor.

Sharon had full support, however, from his formal opposition on the left, which sees Gaza disengagement as a vital first step toward a smaller Israel that can make peace with a Palestinian state. And he has a firm majority in public opinion. The latest opinion poll, published on Tuesday by the daily Yediot Ahronot, showed 65 percent of Israelis favor Sharon's Gaza plan and 26 percent oppose it.

While Netanyahu left the hall without speaking to Sharon, the Labor leader, Shimon Peres, came over to congratulate the prime minister.

From Washington, a State Department spokesman, J. Adam Ereli, called Sharon's proposal a "real opportunity for progress and a return to the political process."

Tuesday was the ninth anniversary, by the Jewish calendar, of the Nov. 4, 1995, assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, by an Israeli determined to halt any handover of territory to Palestinian rule. At a memorial service, Rabin's son, Yuval, compared Sharon's dilemmas to those his father had faced over the 1993 Oslo accords, which handed over control of much of the West Bank and Gaza to Palestinian control. Then and now, he said, the choice centered on "the realization of the need to separate from land, from settlements and from a home."

Sharon, he said, "joins his predecessors, Menachem Begin and my father, who had led similar processes that entailed painful concessions."There were also reminders on Tuesday that for the Palestinians as well, change may be on the horizon. Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, has been suffering from some form of intestinal problem. His doctors say he has the flu, but there has been much speculation about other possible problems, including ulcers, a viral infection and a large gallstone.

Arafat, 75, has had a series of visits from doctors and an endoscopy. On Tuesday, at his doctors' urging, he broke his Ramadan fast and had more medical tests. Arafat has faced a series of challenges to his leadership from a younger generation urging more efficiency, transparency, democracy and less corruption in the Palestinian Authority, and Sharon and President Bush have written off Arafat as a serious partner for peace talks.

The Israeli army on Tuesday ended the latest iteration of its incursion into Gaza in an effort to stop mortar firing from Khan Yunis into the very Gaza settlements Sharon wants to dismantle. In this latest operation, which began Sunday night, 17 Palestinians died and more than 80 were wounded; two Israeli soldiers were seriously wounded in intermittently heavy fighting.

Part of Sharon's intention in removing the 8,000 or so settlers in Gaza, he said, is to "strengthen Israel's grip over the land that is crucial to our existence" — in other words, parts of the West Bank, where more than 230,000 Israeli settlers live. Another 200,000 Jews live in East Jerusalem.

Palestinians fear that Sharon will withdraw only from Gaza. But Israeli withdrawal from Gaza is a challenge to Palestinians to run their own affairs and to crack down on militancy and terrorism.

In an indication of the mood here, a right-wing legislator, Aryeh Eldad of the National Union Party, read out the names of settlers slated for evacuation in the somber tone and form in which legislators read out the names of Jews murdered in the Holocaust on Memorial Day. "Gidi Reish, age 43, Atzmona resident, Jew, slated for expulsion," Eldad intoned.

A Shinui legislator, Etti Livni, broke in to accuse Eldad of incitement. "I think Goebbels would be very happy with a student like Aryeh Eldad," she said. "I think the words that were said, and the connection that was made, is forbidden to make."

Eldad answered: "Everyone to their own associations."