Israeli Parliament Rejects Gaza Referendum

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Israel's parliament easily voted down a bill Monday calling for a national referendum on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's (search) Gaza withdrawal plan, rejecting the last-ditch attempt to torpedo the plan and sparking settler threats of civil war.

With the referendum's failure and the expected approval of the 2005 state budget later this week, the pullout appears to have weathered all legislative threats against it.

Demoralized by the defeat, settlers said they would move their fight into the streets, promising to bring 100,000 protesters to the settlements slated for evacuation to prevent the withdrawal. They also pinned their hopes on the Supreme Court, which agreed Monday to hear a challenge to the pullout.

Approval of a referendum would have almost certainly delayed the withdrawal, scheduled for this summer, and could have brought down Sharon's government and forced new elections. Sharon has repeatedly rejected calls for a national vote as a stalling tactic. Opinion polls show a large majority of Israelis back the Gaza withdrawal.

Opponents of Sharon's "disengagement" plan, which will remove all 21 Gaza settlements and four in the northern West Bank, lobbied vigorously for the referendum.

Uzi Landau (search), a withdrawal opponent in Sharon's own Likud Party, met with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (search), the spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Shas Party, to try to persuade him to support the referendum. Shas controls 11 seats in the 120-member parliament.

Yosef opposes a Gaza withdrawal but instructed the Shas legislators to oppose the referendum anyway, fearing a national plebiscite would set a precedent that would give Israel's secular majority a weapon to use against the ultra-Orthodox minority.

After a rowdy debate, repeatedly interrupted by the shouts of angry lawmakers — several of whom were ejected — the Knesset overwhelmingly defeated the proposal 72-39.

"This is a dramatic statement of the Israeli parliament that disengagement is going to be carried out as planned," Vice Premier Ehud Olmert said.

Settlers, thousands of whom protested across from the Knesset, said the vote would split Israeli society. The government missed a chance to "prevent a violent confrontation and civil war," the Settlers Council said in a statement.

The vote exposed the deep divisions in Likud, a hawkish party filled with settlers and their allies that was stunned by Sharon's sudden reversal last year of his longtime policy of backing settlement building. Sharon says the pullout will help Israel hang onto parts of the West Bank.

Only 13 of Likud's 40 legislators voted against the referendum, forcing Sharon to rely on the support of dovish parties and Arab legislators.

The disengagement plan has repeatedly won Knesset votes. In what will likely be its final legislative test, Sharon must get his budget passed by Thursday, a near certainty after the opposition Shinui Party agreed over the weekend to support the spending plan.

The battle now moves to Israel's Supreme Court, which agreed Monday to hear a challenge to the law providing the legal framework for the Gaza withdrawal. The hearing is set for April 8 before an expanded panel of 11 judges, the Courts Administration said. Such a large panel is generally reserved for landmark cases.

Israeli legal analyst Moshe Negbi said the court decided to hear the case to show that justice was being done, but it was highly unlikely to strike down the law.

"The most [opponents] can hope for ... is that the court will say that the compensation is not high enough," he said.

Also Monday, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia sharply criticized the United States after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reiterated support for Israel's plans to keep large Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank. "This [U.S.] policy is completely incomprehensible," Qureia told reporters.

Israeli officials have confirmed plans to build 3,650 homes around the Maaleh Adumim settlement near Jerusalem. With the expansion and the construction of a separation barrier, Israel would effectively cut off east Jerusalem, the Palestinians' intended capital, from a future state in the West Bank.

A senior Israeli Defense Ministry official said Monday that the Maaleh Adumim project, originally conceived in 1999, could take years to begin. Building permits cannot be issued because the status of the land has not been determined, and the ministry expects court challenges that could last for years, the official said on condition of anonymity.

In any case, Israel has already begun construction of a major junction that would allow West Bank Palestinians to access east Jerusalem, the official said. The Defense Ministry has also set aside money for a system of roads to allow Palestinians to travel throughout the West Bank without entering Jewish population centers, the official said.

U.S. officials said over the weekend that while they oppose continued construction in settlements, the demographic realities created by the settlements cannot be ignored in a final peace deal.

The Palestinians have complained that in signaling support for the annexation of some settlements by Israel, the United States is prejudicing those negotiations. "The U.S. administration is giving us signs that it supports the Israeli aggression," Qureia said.

Also Monday, the ruling Palestinian Fatah Party decided to call its first-ever primary election ahead of voting for the parliament, party officials said.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a meeting of the Fatah leadership determined that primary elections were the only way to choose candidates. Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas won a presidential election on Jan. 9 to succeed Yasser Arafat, and voting for the legislature is set for July.

Abbas held talks Monday in Gaza with Hamas militants on including them in the Palestine Liberation Organization. On Sunday, Abbas met with members of the militant Islamic Jihad group.

Such participation was agreed upon in principle in a meeting between Abbas and opposition factions earlier this month in Cairo. The negotiations were not expected to produce results before July parliamentary elections, the first real measure of popular support for the militants.

However, Abbas invited Hamas and Islamic Jihad to attend a meeting of the PLO Executive Committee, the PLO's top decision-making body, as observers Tuesday. Islamic Jihad accepted, while Hamas said it has not yet decided.

Militant participation in the PLO could cause the Palestinians to take a harder line in negotiations with Israel. However, it could also help further Abbas' goal of moderating violent groups by co-opting them into the political system, rather than crushing them militarily as Israel is demanding.