Israeli parliament backs Gaza pullout plan
Israel's parliament ratified Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan on Tuesday, a pivotal step toward the first evacuation of settlers from occupied territory Palestinians want for a state.
His strongest rival in Likud, finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu, threatened to resign along with three other cabinet ministers unless Sharon agreed within two weeks to a national referendum on the pullout.
The loss of the ministers would further split the party Sharon co-founded and set the scene for a challenge to his leadership or early elections unless he forged a new coalition government, possibly with Shimon Peres's Labour Party.
"(We) have decided to give the prime minister two weeks to announce a referendum, and if not, we will not be able to see ourselves as staying in this government," Netanyahu said in parliament minutes after the vote.
Sharon has in the past refused to hold a referendum, calling it a delaying tactic.
After a fierce two-day debate, legislators voted 67-45, with seven abstentions, for the U.S.-backed plan charting the removal of all 21 Jewish settlements in the occupied Gaza Strip and four of the 120 Israel has built in the West Bank.
Under the plan, the actual uprooting of settlements, a four-stage process slated for completion in 2005, can begin only after a cabinet vote set for March.
Once the settlers' champion, Sharon told parliament that "disengagement" from the Palestinians in Gaza would boost Israel's security and allow it to seal its grip on larger West Bank settlements.
"We've been watching (them) discussing our future, the future of our children, the future of the Palestinians, with one factor -- us being absent," said Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat.
Besides splintering his government and stoking a Likud mutiny, Sharon's landmark proposal has drawn death threats.
Settlers who ringed the heavily guarded parliament held placards calling Sharon a traitor, fiery language last heard in the Israeli political arena before Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by an ultra-nationalist Jew.
"We liquidated Rabin and we will liquidate Sharon," said a slogan daubed on a wall in Jerusalem.
Some 8,000 Israelis live in occupied Gaza in hard-to-defend settlements among 1.3 million Palestinians. Under Sharon's plan, the settlers will be evacuated in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation per family.
Nationalist hard-liners believe Israeli withdrawal would be a dangerous prize for Palestinian militants after more than four years of violence and undermine Jewish claims to ancient biblical land.
"The approval of the Sharon plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip is a big achievement for the Palestinian people and the resistance, which alone has pushed the Zionist enemy into thinking about leaving," said Mushir al-Masri, a spokesman for the militant Hamas group.
Polls show most Israelis regard Gaza, captured along with the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war, as a liability that Israel should be rid of.
If implemented, it would be Israel's first removal of settlements since 1982, when the Sinai Peninsula was returned to Egypt under a 1979 peace treaty.