JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won a historic victory Tuesday when lawmakers approved his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank next year.
It was the first time the parliament authorized the removal of Jewish settlements from lands the Palestinians claim for a state. The vote of 67-45, with seven abstentions, marked a complete break from Sharon’s long career as a champion of the settler movement.
Sharon won with the help of dovish opposition parties. Many members of his center-right coalition, as well as religious opposition parties, voted against him.
The aftermath of the vote was bitter.
The vote meant Sharon could avoid a referendum on the question, which was demanded by hard-line opposition parties, but four Likud ministers — Benjamin Netanyahu, Limor Livnat, Yisrael Katz and Danny Naveh — voted for the plan and then immediately demanded that Sharon agree to a referendum or they would resign from the government.
Sharon had threatened to fire all Likud ministers and deputy ministers who voted against the plan. Both Landau and Ratzon were vehement opponents and had helped lead a Likud mutiny against it.
“He fulfilled his pledge. Those who opposed the vote were fired,” said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon.
The developments put added pressure on Sharon to hold a referendum, but it was unclear whether they would threaten his government. However, they could give him added impetus to form a new governing coalition with moderate and dovish parties.
U.S. backs Sharon
In Washington, the State Department praised the vote as a step forward in peacemaking with the Palestinians.
Deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said: “We think the withdrawal plan presents an opportunity to advance the interests of both sides.”
The Bush administration is hoping the removal of all 8,000 Jewish settlers and the Israeli troops that protect them in Gaza, along with a partial withdrawal on the West Bank, will be only the first step to a bigger pullback and a Palestinian state on the land Israel relinquishes.
“We think that the plan as presented by Prime Minister Sharon is a good opportunity, and it is one that helps both parties achieve what we are all working toward,” Ereli said.
Sharon’s victory Tuesday came on the nine-year anniversary, according to the Jewish calendar, of the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an extremist Jew opposed to his peace efforts.
Sharon entered parliament Tuesday afternoon surrounded by 16 bodyguards, an unprecedented number. Outside, police cordoned off the building and restricted entry as thousands of settlers gathered in a nearby park to protest the plan. Protection for Sharon has been beefed up in recent weeks amid growing concern that he could by attacked by right-wing extremists.
Sharon defended his plan as debate opened Monday as the only way to secure Israel’s future. “This is a fateful moment for Israel,” he declared in a speech that was repeatedly interrupted by hecklers.
First step on long road
Tuesday’s vote is only the first of several required before the plan can be implemented next year. Sharon’s shaky government remains in danger of falling over other issues, including the budget.
The vote marked the first time parliament has approved the dismantling of Jewish settlements in Gaza or the West Bank. Opinion polls show that a solid majority of the public supports Sharon.
The plan marks a dramatic transformation for the man who spent decades leading the effort to build up the settlements. As recently as early 2003, Sharon said the Gaza settlements were an essential part of Israel.
But after four years of devastating violence, Sharon believes the continued occupation of Gaza — where 8,200 Jewish settlers live amid 1.3 million Palestinians — is untenable.
Sharon says his plan will boost Israel’s security. He also believes it will blunt international criticism of Israel and strengthen its hold over large parts of the West Bank and east Jerusalem — lands the Palestinians claim for a state.
Jewish settlers and hard-line lawmakers accuse Sharon of caving in to Palestinian violence and fear that the withdrawal will be the first step in a larger pullback.
Sharon “is the architect and the originator of the settlement enterprise. So to talk like this to the people he sent, there’s a name for it. It’s a kind of treason,” said Effie Eitam of the National Religious Party.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.