Knesset OKs Israeli pullout in Gaza Strip

Parliament approves plan to dismantle settlements

February 17, 2005|By Laura King | Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's landmark initiative to uproot the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip won final parliamentary approval last night after two days of acrimonious debate.

The measure, which authorizes nearly $1 billion in compensation payments for the approximately 8,000 settlers who are to be evacuated, passed 59-40, despite furious protests from right-wing members of parliament who were once the prime minister's closest allies.

The plan still needs final endorsement by Sharon's divided Cabinet, a showdown vote that is scheduled for Sunday. Several key ministers, including Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are said to be considering voting against the measure.

Opponents of the Gaza withdrawal, scheduled to begin in midsummer, could still derail the plan if they manage to muster enough votes in the parliament, or Knesset, next month to defeat Sharon's annual budget. That would effectively topple his government, because under Israeli law failure to pass the spending plan by March 31 automatically triggers new elections.

Over the course of a marathon session that began Tuesday morning, lawmakers sifted through dozens of proposed amendments to the measure, including a bid to delay the pullout timetable to allow for a nationwide referendum.

Sharon firmly opposed a referendum, maintaining that the approval of the Knesset and the Cabinet would sufficiently reflect the will of the people.

Yesterday's measure required the approval of a majority of those voting. Many lawmakers in the 120-member Knesset were absent or abstained.

Since Sharon unveiled the plan last year, public opinion polls consistently have indicated that a solid majority of Israelis want to relinquish Gaza, a densely populated and impoverished enclave that has long been a hotbed of activity by Palestinian militant groups.

But settlers and their supporters have waged an increasingly strident campaign to block withdrawal.

Vice Premier Shimon Peres, one of Israel's leading doves, delivered an impassioned appeal before the Knesset vote, saying no durable peace with the Palestinians would be possible as long as Israeli settlers remained in Gaza.

Halting momentum toward a pullout now, he argued, would destroy the climate of reconciliation that has taken hold since the death last November of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the election in January of Mahmoud Abbas.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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