Israeli lawmakers approve budget, shoring up Sharon's government

Foes of Gaza pullout tried to use vote to topple him

March 30, 2005|By Laura King | Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won parliamentary approval for his annual budget by a wide margin yesterday, steamrolling opponents who had tried to use the issue to topple his government and block Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this summer.

Jewish settlers and their supporters, having exhausted their last legislative hope of derailing the Gaza pullout, vowed a disruptive campaign of civil disobedience and street protests. The more extreme among them made thinly veiled threats of violence.

"This is legitimate war," Gaza settler Arieh Yitzhaki told Israel Radio. "We'll stop the [evacuation of settlements] with our bodies."

Had Sharon failed to push the $61 billion budget through the Knesset, or parliament, by midnight tomorrow, he would have been forced to dissolve his government and call early elections. That would have made it nearly impossible to adhere to the scheduled July 20 start of the Gaza evacuation.

But after weeks of backroom haggling, the prime minister secured the necessary budget votes in a weekend accord with the secular Shinui party.

The approval of the spending plan by a vote of 58-36, with one abstention, came a day after the prime minister and his allies fought back another Knesset challenge by opponents of the withdrawal: a bid to put the issue to a nationwide referendum. That was defeated by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.

Stung by the dual defeats, Jewish settlers declared that they would mobilize tens of thousands of supporters to paralyze the country. In recent weeks, opponents of the withdrawal plan have blockaded highways several times at rush hour, causing huge traffic jams.

"We'll light such a fire in the streets that in the end it will be decided ... to stop the move," said lawmaker Zvi Hendel, who lives in one of the Gaza settlements.

But senior aides to Sharon predicted that settlers' efforts would backfire, making their cause even more unpopular.

"There will be no fire in the streets; we won't let this happen," said Deputy Premier Ehud Olmert, a key confidant of the prime minister. "We understand this fervor, but they know too that this fervor has its limits."

Opinion polls for months have indicated that about two-thirds of Israelis are in favor of the Gaza withdrawal, seeing the coastal territory as a strategic liability and a financial drain. About 8,500 Jewish settlers live among more than 1.2 million Palestinians in heavily fortified enclaves guarded around the clock by Israeli troops.

Settlers signaled their intention to defy government orders against outsiders moving into the 21 Gaza settlements that are to be evacuated, together with four smaller ones in the northern West Bank.

In expectation of the army declaring Gaza a closed military zone well before the start of the pullout, settlers have indicated that they will use the Passover holiday, in the last week of April, to pack Gaza's main settlement bloc with supporters. Israeli authorities have said they believe the resisters are stockpiling supplies and will set up tent cities to house a hoped-for influx.

"If these areas close after Passover, we'll prepare for their arrival nonetheless," said Pinchas Wallerstein, head of the Yesha Council, the settlers' umbrella group.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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