JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won a key battle yesterday against opponents of his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip when Israeli lawmakers overwhelmingly voted down a bill calling for a nationwide referendum on the pullout.
The referendum proposal was a last-ditch legislative effort by settlers and their political allies to head off the withdrawal, set for the summer. Their efforts are likely to shift to trying to block the evacuation through civil disobedience and protest actions.
"It's irreversible now, from a parliamentary point of view," Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin said. "The more dangerous obstacles are friction or violence in the streets."
The Israeli Supreme Court agreed yesterday to consider three petitions filed by pullout opponents that challenge the law governing compensation for settlers. The hearing, before a panel of 11 judges, will take place next week.
The settlers' leaders sounded resigned even before the Knesset's vote, saying their best hope for stopping the pullout was the planned disobedience campaign. The withdrawal, calling for abandoning all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four others in a remote corner of the northern West Bank, is scheduled to begin July 20.
"We'll take care to have tens of thousands of people on evacuation day, on the day Jews will be expelled from their land," Bentzi Lieberman, a prominent activist, told Israel radio.
Pullout opponents have publicized their cause by blocking key highways. They have promised further actions to disrupt movement and daily life as the evacuation date nears. For their part, Israeli officials have begun preparing for mass arrests - training police, opening jail spaces and threatening prosecution.
Before yesterday's vote, Sharon already appeared to have eliminated the other remaining legislative obstacle to the pullout by gaining promises of a parliamentary majority for the proposed 2005 national budget. Lawmakers began debating the budget soon after voting on the referendum.
A vote on the spending plan is expected to take place today or tomorrow.
Its passage seems assured after the centrist Shinui party announced Saturday that it would vote in favor, averting the possible collapse of Sharon's government. Failure to pass the budget by Thursday's deadline would have required new national elections within 90 days, endangering plans for the withdrawal.
Shinui's pledge on the budget left pullout opponents, including members of Sharon's Likud Party, with the referendum bill as their last parliamentary gambit. Israeli law does not provide for deciding political matters by referendum, and a new law was needed to create the mechanism.
Opinion polls have shown consistent support for the Gaza withdrawal among Israelis, but settlers hoped to prevail in a nationwide vote, or at least to delay the planned withdrawal.
Approval of a referendum could have toppled Sharon's government. The moderate Labor Party, Sharon's main coalition partner and a staunch supporter of the Gaza withdrawal, had threatened to quit if the bill passed.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.