JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon inaugurated a new, tempestuous session of parliament on Monday by defending his plan to dismantle all Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and a few in the West Bank. Right-wing legislators want to dismantle his government instead.
Sharon told a noisy parliament that he would present the pullout plan for approval on Oct. 25, then said he would bring a bill for compensating the 8,500 settlers to be evacuated.
In a symbolic first blow, the parliament voted against Sharon's statement, 53-44, but his government was not immediately endangered. Two motions of no-confidence were voted down.
The evacuation is to begin during summer 2005 and last about 12 weeks, according to a government timetable, but Sharon's government might not survive that long.
Over the heckling of hard-line lawmakers who reject the concept of removing any Jewish settlements (search), Sharon declared that dismantling all 21 settlements in Gaza and four small ones in the West Bank is necessary to return the diplomatic initiative to Israel.
"It is essential for us to see that our friends, especially the United States, stand by us," Sharon said, warning that a continued stalemate would work against Israel, while blaming Palestinians for the freeze.
He said Israel accepts the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, but the Palestinians have scuttled it by failing to stop militants from attacking Israelis and refusing to reform their administration. Palestinians charge that Israeli occupation and military operations are perpetuating the violence.
He promised the parliament "constant supervision" over the implementation of the pullout plan and left open the door to changing it or backing away from it if the security situation deteriorates.
"We will reserve the right to determine the state of security and adapt the plan to the reality, with the main priority of defending ourselves and preventing terror," he said.
After decades of building and expanding Jewish settlements, Sharon suddenly announced last December that he favored pulling all Jewish settlers out of the Gaza Strip (search).
He explained that leaving 8,200 settlers in Gaza among 1.3 million Palestinians was untenable, and evacuating settlements there would help Israel hold on to main settlement blocs in the West Bank (search).
Palestinians call the plan a land grab aimed at preventing them from establishing a state, while Sharon's own backers fear that once the settlements start coming down, the process will not end until all of them are gone — exactly as the Palestinians demand.
In Gaza on Monday, meanwhile, a large-scale Israeli operation continued, with the aim of stopping militants from firing rockets at Israeli towns. About 2,000 Israeli soldiers have been battling militants since Sept. 29, following a rocket strike that killed two Israeli tots.
The Israeli military recommended the operation be halted, saying it had run its course, but Sharon refused, Israeli security sources said Sunday.
"We will have another assessment of the situation at the end of week and will decide how to proceed and what other directions we will operate," Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said.
The deep ideological disagreements over the "unilateral disengagement" plan are expected to dominate the parliamentary session that began Monday, and some lawmakers said it was unlikely Sharon's government would complete its term, due to expire in November 2006.
Sharon lost his parliamentary majority in June over the plan, but the house was in recess from July until Monday, giving him a reprieve from no-confidence motions that might have forced his resignation.
Two no-confidence motions already were on the table Monday — the first meeting of the legislature's winter session — but they were rejected by wide margins.
Under Israeli rules, a no-confidence motion requires an absolute majority of 61 votes of the 120 members to pass. While Sharon commands 59 votes at the most, some of his opponents abstain or absent themselves during voting, leaving the opposition short of the required 61.
In the West Bank on Monday, a soldier shot and critically wounded a Palestinian farmer who was harvesting olives, Palestinians said, after Jewish settlers tried to interfere. Soldiers told police no shots were fired.
The olive harvest often has been a focus of violence between farmers and settlers in the past.