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Israeli parliament bars Gaza referendum
Updated: 2005-03-28 00:24

The Israeli parliament on Monday overwhelmingly rejected a bill for a referendum on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza, thwarting a maneuver by rightists opposed to ceding any occupied land.

The 72-39 vote removed what Sharon had branded a stalling tactic by rightists opposed to his Gaza "Disengagement Plan."

Legislators quickly swung into debate on the 2005 state budget with voting set for later this week, the final political hurdle toward Israel's first exit from territory taken in the 1967 Middle East war and which Palestinians want for a state.

A rightist mutiny in his Likud party over his plan had put the 264.4 billion shekel ($61 billion) budget in last-minute jeopardy. But Sharon struck a deal with a centrist opposition party Saturday to clinch a majority for the spending package.

U.S.-led mediators see the pullout plan as the catalyst for future "road map" peace talks aimed at a Palestinian state. Hope has been raised by a cease-fire largely holding since moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas took office in January.

But in a sign of further tension, Israeli forces raided the West Bank city of Jenin Monday and arrested eight Palestinian militants they said were making rockets for future attacks.

The referendum bill failed after hours of fierce debate between nationalist foes and centrist and left-wing supporters.

Sharon had called the referendum push a bid to undermine him at odds with polls showing most Israelis want out of Gaza.

But he was also believed to be concerned that a probable high referendum turnout by rightists relative to Israelis who are less politically engaged could produce a narrow result, polarizing the public and tying his hands over the Gaza plan.

Israel has never staged a referendum and arrangements for one could take months, shredding the Gaza timetable.

Political analysts had also voiced concern that such a move could set a dangerous precedent whereby the elected government is bypassed by a popular ballot on controversial issues, hampering its ability to govern.


Sharon's strategists expressed confidence parliament would pass the budget after killing the referendum legislation.

Failure to enact the budget by March 31 would topple Sharon's government and trigger snap elections that could derail the evacuation of all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank slated to start on July 20.

But he appeared to have nailed down a long-sought majority with 15 votes from the Shinui party earned by promising an extra $160 million in funding for its favored causes such as higher education, army veterans and the environment.

Shinui's move deflated the threat by 13 of 40 Likud legislators to block the budget to scuttle Sharon's bid to "disengage" from conflict with the Palestinians.

Shinui's voters back the pullout plan but the secularist party had earlier refused to support the budget in protest at a hike in funding for religious institutions Sharon promised to expand his coalition with the UTJ ultra-Orthodox party.

Nationalist religious Israelis condemn the Gaza plan as "capitulation to Palestinian terror" and believe the West Bank and Gaza are lands bequeathed to Jews by God in the Bible.

Sharon, a former right-wing general, was for decades the godfather of Jewish settlement on territory Israel captured from Arab states in 1967.

But he now says that 8,500 settlers living among 1.3 million Palestinians and tying down large numbers of Israeli troops have become a strategic and economic liability.

Sharon has sought to contain a nationalist protest campaign by vowing under any future peace deal with Palestinians to keep larger West Bank enclaves with most of the 240,000 settlers -- thwarting Palestinian demands for a state in all of the West Bank and Gaza.

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