What's next for historic Gaza pullout plan

Israeli lawmakers approve first dismantling of Jewish settlements, but plan continues to face fierce resistance.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won an historic parliament vote Tuesday to withdraw Jewish settlements from parts of the occupied territories - but the plan already is in serious danger from rivals in his own political party.

Key ministers in the Likud party who oppose the pullout have given Mr. Sharon an ultimatum, leaving him with little opportunity to savor the victory.

First steps toward dismantling settlements

While thousands of settlers and their supporters demonstrated outside, the Knesset voted 67 to 45 to approve the principle of withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank - a major step toward the first dismantling of settlements since Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula in 1982 to consummate peace arrangements with Egypt.

"The decision is historic," says Hebrew University political scientist Menachem Hofnung. "This is a decision that was never taken with land regarded as the historic Land of Israel. Sinai is not considered part of the Land of Israel."

The plan, if it comes to fruition, would be the first dismantling of settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, which were captured by Israel in the 1967 War. The go-ahead for actually starting to dismantle the 21 Gaza settlements awaits cabinet approval in March.

Many of the demonstrators outside the Knesset were children who had been given the day off from school to join the protest. Yael Hirshberg, a high school student, wore a sticker on her shirt: "Sharon is disconnected from the people."

"He doesn't understand his people and its connection to the land," she explains. "It belongs to us and it is capitulation to give it to the Arabs. With God's help, the plan will be stopped," she says.

Sharon got his slightly larger-than-expected margin of victory from the support of the opposition Labor party and other left-wing Knesset members. Many rebels in his Likud party voted against the plan.

Only minutes after the vote, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and three other Likud ministers raised questions about the future of Sharon's plan: he, Education Minister Limor Livnat, Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz and Health Minister Dan Naveh threatened to resign within two weeks unless Sharon agrees to put his plan to a referendum. A junior coalition partner, the National Religious Party, is also threatening to bolt.

Rejecting a referendum

Sharon has so far adamantly rejected a referendum, a public vote which if it happened would be unprecedented in Israeli history. Sharon steadfastly says the Knesset is Israel's deciding body and that holding a referendum would simply be an effort to delay the withdrawal.

"We are not interested in toppling or replacing [Sharon] but without a referendum the country will be rent," Netanyahu told Israeli television after the vote Tuesday night. "We need to give a chance for unity in the country and unity in Likud."

Shimon Peres, the Labor party leader who strongly supports the Gaza withdrawal, told reporters: "The referendum is to torpedo the plan. It is a landmine and a trick."

Analysts say a referendum would postpone implementation of the withdrawal plan by about a year since it would require passing a new law and haggling over arrangements.

"It would mean burying disengagement for awhile," says Hebrew University's Hofnung. "Sharon could have agreed to a referendum a week ago without losing face, but not after he has won the crucial vote after disregarding all calls for a referendum. If he gives in now, it shows clearly that the kingmaker in Israeli politics is Netanyahu."

Sharon's options

Uzi Benziman, author of a biography of Sharon and columnist for the newspaper Ha'aretz, says: "I'm afraid the plan is in serious trouble. On the one hand, Sharon got an impressive majority in the Knesset, but at the same time, because of the ultimatums, it looks like he does not have a party anymore."

He says Sharon's options include coming to a compromise with the rebel ministers by making a vague commitment to holding a referendum or defying the ultimatum and trying to form a new coalition with Labor and the Centrist Shinui party. To do this, however, Sharon would likely have to split Likud, since the Likud governing body has taken a decision ruling out a coalition with Labor, says Benziman.

"Two weeks is a long time. Perhaps some compromise can be found," Benziman adds. But with all of the opposition in Likud and from hard-line settlers, "I'm afraid the plan won't be implemented in the end."

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