JERUSALEM – Israel's plan to pull out of Gaza next year passed a crucial test Thursday when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search), his government crippled by opposition to the withdrawal, easily won party approval to invite the dovish Labor Party into his coalition.
Now the way is clear for removing 21 Israeli settlements from Gaza and four from the West Bank next summer, as Sharon proposed, despite harsh criticism from his own party.
Defeat in the party vote could have spelled delay or even death for the Gaza withdrawal plan and an end to hopes for restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in its wake.
Expanding the Israeli government, coupled with Jan. 9 elections to pick a new Palestinian leader to replace Yasser Arafat (search), could inject new hope into efforts to restart the long-stalled peace talks.
Cabinet minister Israel Katz said the final vote count among the 3,000-member Likud Party (search) Central Committee was 62 percent in favor of Sharon's proposal and 38 percent opposed.
The win clears the way to adding Labor, a partner solidly favoring the Gaza pullout and resuming peace negotiations, giving Sharon a majority government for the first time since June.
There is opposition among Labor activists to joining their archrival Sharon in another government after their first joint government broke up in 2002. However, party leader Shimon Peres strongly favors entering the government, and party approval is expected.
The Likud committee already voted in August against inviting Labor to join the government. But after Sharon fired a key coalition partner for voting against his budget Dec. 1, his coalition was more tenuous than ever. He warned that the choice now was Labor or elections.
Sharon, worried about a low turnout that would favor his opponents, made a rare early-morning appeal to his backers to vote.
"I want to say that we are standing before great opportunities and events that could be historical, and I won't let anything or anyone harm the opportunity of the state of Israel to take advantage of these opportunities," he told Army Radio.
Sharon defied his party and his own ideology when he first presented his plan to remove all 21 Jewish settlements from Gaza and four small ones from the West Bank a year ago.
For decades, Sharon was the patron of the settlements, enabling their construction and expansion, and his Likud Party strongly opposed conceding any land to the Palestinians or creating a Palestinian state.
Over the past year, however, Sharon has changed his policy, but most of his party refused to go along.
Sharon says the Gaza settlements, with 8,200 Jews living among more than 1 million Palestinians, are untenable and must be removed. He believes that would give Israel a better chance to retain its main settlement blocs in the West Bank, where most of the 236,000 settlers there live, and it also would head off international peace efforts unfavorable to Israel.
Opponents reject evacuating any settlements as a matter of principle and warn that an Israeli pullout from Gaza would lead to international pressure to withdraw from the West Bank.
The Likud rank-and-file overwhelmingly voted against the withdrawal in a party referendum May 2. Sharon ignored the vote and pressed ahead.
However, Sharon finally ran out of political elbow room. After dismissing all his coalition partners in spats over the withdrawal plan and the state budget, he only has Likud in the government.
Likud has 40 seats in the 120-member parliament, but up to half the Likud members oppose the Gaza withdrawal. Without the 21 votes from Labor and votes from at least one smaller ultra-Orthodox Jewish party as insurance against Likud rebels, Sharon could lose a no-confidence vote at any time and be voted out of office.
Arafat's death Nov. 11 has opened new possibilities for a breakthrough in the deadlocked Mideast peace talks, since Israel and the United States considered him an obstacle.
But the lull in fighting after his death ended in recent days. On Thursday, an Israeli aircraft fired a missile at a car carrying Palestinian militants in southern Gaza, wounding three men, Palestinian security officials said. One was Jamal Abu Samhadana, one of two Gaza commanders of the Popular Resistance Committees, an umbrella group of militant factions.
The Israeli military said the attack targeted a militant responsible for numerous terror attacks.
Late Thursday, Israel carried out another airstrike, hitting a militant's house in northern Gaza. The military said rockets and mortars were stored there. No one was hurt in the attack.
Israel has said it would refrain from carrying out offensive operations — unless it was attacked or had information of an imminent attack — in an effort to ensure calm before the next month's Palestinian elections.
Israeli airstrikes killed two militants in Gaza on Tuesday after a Hamas bombing killed a soldier.
Before daybreak on Thursday, Israeli soldiers opened fire on five suspicious Palestinians near the Gaza border with Egypt, killing two and wounding a third, the army said.
The soldiers suspected the Palestinians were either planting bombs in the area or smuggling weapons across the border, the army said.
Overnight, the army said it shot at four figures crawling toward the Egyptian border late Wednesday, hitting two. Palestinian medics said they recovered four bodies.