The State Department (search) praised the Israeli parliament's approval of removing settlements from Gaza and part of the West Bank as a step forward in peacemaking with the Palestinians.

Deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said Tuesday, "We think the withdrawal plan presents an opportunity to advance the interests of both sides."

Approval by the Knesset (search), or parliament, came in Jerusalem after a stormy debate between supporters of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) and critics of the pullback.

Before the historic vote, Ereli hesitated to take a stand until the results were in.

Then he changed course and said it was "America's belief, the United States' belief, that the Gaza disengagement plan, as presented by Prime Minister Sharon, offers real opportunity for progress and a return to the political process."

Ereli went on to note that Sharon's plan also calls for withdrawal from some settlements on the West Bank (search), and called it an important step. "As we've made clear," he said, "settlement activity is something that we are concerned about."

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.

Opponents of the plan question the withdrawal as a one-sided concession, note Jews lived in Gaza as far back as 2,500 years ago and are concerned the pullback will only whet appetites for more Israeli concessions.

In the meantime, there has been hardly any progress toward the Palestinian state that President Bush in 2002 envisioned would be established in 2005.

"I think you have to take into account the realities on the ground," Ereli said. "It's still realizable. And it's still something that that we are committed to working for."

The spokesman began the daily media briefing at the State Department noting Tuesday was the 10th anniversary of the 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel.

Since the late King Hussein and the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin took that "courageous and farsighted step" the people in the two countries have reaped significant benefits, including increased trade and improved security, the U.S. official said.

"The United States will continue to work with all parties of good will to expand the just, lasting and mutually beneficial peace that Jordan and Israel have achieved," he said.