Sharon vows vote on Gaza pullout

Israeli premier sets date of Oct. 25

lawmakers unofficially reject speech

October 12, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon opened a new legislative session yesterday and pledged to lay his office on the line by putting his controversial plan to close settlements in Gaza and part of the West Bank to a vote Oct. 25.

Amid shouts and catcalls during his televised address, Sharon acknowledged the angst that his plan to withdraw from Jewish settlements is causing but pressed lawmakers "to make decisions using a broad national vision."

Hours later, parliament gave a blunt indication of how divisive an issue this is by voting to reject Sharon's speech. While the vote was largely a symbolic act of defiance, it could foretell the outcome of the official ballot this month.

Lawmakers registered their disapproval by a show of hands during a raucous session that made it difficult to determine how various factions, particularly 10 to 15 rebels within Sharon's rightist Likud Party who reject the plan, voted. The tally was 53-44, with a large number of the 128 members of parliament abstaining or not participating.

Aides told Israeli Radio last night that the prime minister might try to broaden his coalition by bringing in the opposition Labor Party - an indication that Sharon feels he cannot continue to govern while lacking support within his party.

A parliamentary rejection of the disengagement plan Oct. 25 could do more damage to Sharon by forcing new elections and throwing the country's turbulent political state into fur- ther uncertainty. It would nullify the government's only working formula for dealing with the Palestinian conflict.

A victory for Sharon could give him the push he needs to forge ahead with evacuating the army and all 8,100 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and from four isolated West Bank communities, by this time next year.

A call for unity

"I know, and we must all realize, how difficult it is for a family to abandon its lifestyle," Sharon said of the settlers, part of a pioneer movement he helped to create. "After all, these are people who were sent to the Gaza Strip by Israeli governments. ... I know and understand their pain."

Sharon called the decision "vital to the security, prosperity and future of the state of Israel," one that will "determine the character of the state and the nature of our lives here in the coming years."

But, he implored, "Once [the government] has made a decision - unity.

"In this political sphere, argument is allowed, protest is allowed, even cries are allowed," Sharon said. "But what cannot be allowed is a devastating blow to our lives and our ability to act together to promote national interests."

Sharon vowed to press ahead with his plan. He presented an ambitious timetable that includes the introduction Nov. 3 of legislation that would provide hundreds of thousands of dol- lars in compensation to settlers for lost homes and businesses.

A rocky path to peace

The address came as army search-and-rescue teams finished their work in Taba, Egypt, where a car bomb destroyed a hotel and two other sites last week, killing 32 people, including 13 Israelis. The army is continuing its offensive in Gaza to stop rocket fire by militants. About 100 Palestinians, many of them civilians, have been killed in 12 days of fighting.

"Again, we had to grit our teeth and brace ourselves in the face of the inferno," Sharon said in opening remarks. "Again we had to make a terrible sacrifice."

Sharon used the recent violence as a platform to restate his charge that the Palestinians are holding up negotiations by refusing to crack down on militant groups, thus stalling progress on a long-moribund, U.S.-backed peace plan.

"The blame for the political deadlock and inability to progress toward a realization of [the Palestinians'] national aspirations rests solely on their shoulders," Sharon said. He stressed that "Israel is interested in renewing the political negotiations under the road map."

Sharon repeatedly noted his support for the peace initiative in order to blunt criticism of his chief of staff, who told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz last week that the disengagement plan allows the political process with the Palestinians to be frozen in "formaldehyde." The United States demanded a clarification from Israel to ensure that its leaders still back the peace plan.

"I reiterate and emphasize," Sharon said yesterday, "the road map was and is the only political plan accepted by the state of Israel, and we adhere to it."

Labor Party support

Shimon Peres, leader of the opposition Labor Party, said in an address after Sharon's that the government should seek out Palestinian leaders who advocate a peaceful solution to the conflict.

"We have got to deal with the present situation and not wait for a generation that hasn't been born yet," said Peres. "This government creates the impression that it wants to run away from peace and not advance for peace."

The Labor Party exerts even greater power than usual because Sharon lacks a majority in parliament, making his government susceptible to the almost daily confidence resolutions that are presented.

Labor has thus far helped Sharon's government remain intact, largely because it supports the withdrawal plan. Peres said yesterday that Labor would continue its assistance, but only if Sharon remains serious about implementing his plan and leaving Gaza.

Dalia Itzik, leader of Labor's parliament faction, said, "We do not want to topple the prime minister over a political issue."

But she cautioned that automatic support was not in the offing. "We're not in his pocket anymore."

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