The Israeli parliament today approved a historic plan to withdraw Jewish settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip, accepting Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's proposal by a comfortable margin after two days of rancorous debate.
The vote — 67 to 45, with seven abstentions and one lawmaker absent — represents a key step toward a pullout, which would be the first time Israel has acted on its own to vacate settlements in territory captured during the 1967 Middle East War. The withdrawal, scheduled to take place next year, still must pass further government votes.
The measure passed the parliament, or Knesset, with the help of the dovish Labor Party and leftist lawmakers. Sharon's conservative Likud remained deeply divided, with nearly half of the 40-member faction voting against the party leader.
"This is a big victory for Sharon," said Justice Minister Tommy Lapid, a member of the centrist Shinui Party that is Sharon's largest coalition partner.
Sharon has said the unilateral pullback, which polls show enjoys the support of most Israelis, would reduce friction with the Palestinians and free the military from having to guard an area that Israel is unlikely to keep in any peace agreement. Foes say leaving Gaza amounts to the forcible expulsion of Jews and rewards terrorism.
Four Likud ministers engaged in last-minute brinksmanship by threatening to sit out the vote — and thus shrinking Sharon's margin — unless he agreed to a national referendum on the pullout. But Sharon rejected the demand and the four, including influential Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, voted in favor.
Despite the Knesset win, the prime minister faces a treacherous political landscape that includes fissures in his own party. Netanyahu and three other Likud ministers said after the vote that they would resign in two weeks if Sharon did not agree to hold a referendum. After the vote, Sharon fired two other Likud ministers who voted no.
Sharon's governing center-right coalition is still without a parliamentary majority and it remains unclear how he will craft one in coming weeks. The rightist National Religious Party today said it would abandon the coalition if Sharon did not call a referendum on the pullout.
Sharon has said a referendum would only delay the pullout by months.
Sharon has made overtures to the left-leaning Labor and two religious parties in a bid to broaden his government without calling for national elections. But his Likud Party has previously sought to bar a unity government with Labor, the largest opposition party.
On Monday, the Knesset is expected to take up legislation dealing with compensating settlers who are to be removed from their homes, many of which were built with government support. Later next week, Sharon's fragile coalition enters a make-or-break phase when lawmakers begin considering the 2005 budget, which will include funds for the withdrawals.
Moreover, the Cabinet must separately approve the actual evacuation in stages before any settlements can be uprooted. Sharon has said he hopes to carry out the withdrawal over a three-month period next summer.
"I don't think he's out of the woods by any means," said Mark Heller, senior research associate at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Among the hurdles, Heller said, are the thousands of settlers and supporters whose fervent resistance on religious and ideological grounds is unlikely to fade as a result of the parliamentary vote.
"As far as they're concerned, no earthly government has a right to do this," he said.
Still, today's vote was a rare piece of good news for Sharon after months of political setbacks over the evacuation plan.
The withdrawal proposal was defeated in a Likud referendum in May, and Sharon has since been buffeted by a spirited opposition campaign made up of many former admirers in the settlement movement he long championed.
Sharon fired two pro-settler government ministers to ensure a Cabinet majority for the plan in June and since then has pushed for a parliamentary vote, despite resistance within Likud and appeals by settler leaders to put the idea to a referendum vote.
Although today's Knesset vote was not the final word on the withdrawal, it came draped in significance.
"Making History," declared the main headline on the front page of the daily Maariv newspaper. An editorial in Haaretz, voicing support for the pullout, called it "nothing less than a historic moment in the Israelis' battle for their home."
The plan calls for evacuating all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four others in the northern West Bank by the end of next year. The Gaza settlements are home to about 8,000 Jewish residents, while the West Bank communities hold several hundred more.
The only time Israel has uprooted Jewish settlements was when it handed the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt under the 1979 Camp David peace agreement.
Adding to the air of history, the Knesset vote came as Israel commemorated the anniversary, according to the Jewish calendar, of the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin was gunned down by a right-wing law student who opposed an interim peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Some Israeli officials said the charged rhetoric around the Sharon plan resembled that heard before the Rabin slaying. Security around the prime minister has been extraordinarily tight.
The Knesset vote came after two days of debate on whether exiting Gaza would leave Israel better off or weaker.
"Have we got the moral right to uproot Jews from their homes, Jews who settled in this part of the land even before the state of Israel was founded? Jews who raised four generations of sons and daughters there to the glory of Israel?" lawmaker Gila Gamliel, a Likud member, asked during the debate today. "Have we got the moral right to uproot them from their homes without getting anything in return, without a peace agreement?"
Matan Vilnai of the Labor Party, whose members generally have little praise for Sharon, called the prime minister "courageous" and worthy of support.
"As someone who spent most of his years fighting for the state of Israel, I don't accept the claim that there are people who love the country because they live in settlements and others who don't because they don't live there," he said.
Outside the Knesset building, several thousand settlers and their allies gathered in a park to peacefully show their dismay over the withdrawal, which many view as an act of betrayal by their former advocate, Sharon.
Demonstrators wore matching orange shirts and baby strollers were nearly as abundant as campaign placards. Settlement schools in the West Bank and Gaza Strip closed to allow children to attend the Knesset rally.
Sarah Lieberman, a 46-year-old English teacher from Qedumim, a West Bank settlement that is not slated for removal, expressed anger at having supported Sharon only to find him advocating the removal of settlements.
"I chose someone and voted for someone and he changed his mind and he expects me to go along with him," said Lieberman, who brought three of her seven children to the rally. "The people who voted for him don't want this. I think he's very wrong."