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Sharon Passes Last Legislative Hurdle on Gaza

Times Staff Writer

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won a key remaining battle Monday against opponents of his Gaza withdrawal plan when lawmakers voted down a bill calling for a nationwide referendum on the issue.

The referendum proposal, which failed 72 to 39, was a last-ditch legislative attempt by settlers and their right-wing political allies to head off the withdrawal of Jewish residents and troops from the Gaza Strip, scheduled for this summer. Their efforts will probably shift to trying to block the evacuation through civil disobedience and other 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.”

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The Israeli Supreme Court agreed Monday to consider three petitions that challenge the law governing compensation for settlers. The hearing, before a panel of 11 judges, is scheduled for next week.

Settler leaders sounded resigned even before the legislative vote, saying their best hope for stopping the pullout was the planned disobedience campaign. The withdrawal, which calls for abandoning all 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank, is to begin July 20.

Activists have publicized their cause by blocking key highways and setting piles of tires ablaze. They have promised further actions to disrupt movement and daily life as the evacuation date nears. Israeli officials have begun preparing for mass arrests by training police, boosting jail space and threatening prosecution.

Before Monday’s vote in the parliament, or Knesset, Sharon 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 Monday after voting on the referendum.

A vote on the spending plan is expected today or Wednesday. 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 the pullout plan.

Shinui’s pledge on the budget left opponents of the pullout, including members of Sharon’s conservative 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.

Polls have shown consistent public support for the Gaza withdrawal, but settlers hoped to prevail in a nationwide vote, or at least to delay the pullout. Some promoted the measure as a way to prevent damaging schisms within Israeli society.

Supporters, though, faced an uphill battle in the Knesset, where most lawmakers have opposed putting the evacuation plan on the ballot. Up to the last minute, referendum backers were lobbying Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of Shas, an Orthodox party that has 11 seats in the 120-member Knesset and opposes the withdrawal.

Shas had indicated it might support the referendum if there was hope of winning. But in the end, its lawmakers voted against it -- a decision probably reflecting their leaders’ concern that future ballot measures could target laws dear to the party, such as the exemption from compulsory military service for young men dedicated to religious study.

Passage of the referendum law probably would have toppled Sharon’s government. The left-leaning Labor Party, which joined the government in January to help prop up Sharon long enough to carry out the withdrawal, threatened to quit if the bill passed.

Security was beefed up around the Knesset, where activists opposed to the pullout have held regular protests for weeks.

In other developments, Israel again began allowing Palestinians with permits to enter from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A closure was imposed last week for the Jewish holiday of Purim.


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