JERUSALEM – Israel's opposition Labor Party backed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) in a crucial parliamentary vote Wednesday, a day after he was cleared of corruption charges — boosting Sharon's plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip (search).
Labor was sending signals of readiness to join Sharon's government to promote the Gaza move, but there was stiff opposition from party members on both sides. Also, a poll showed the Israeli public was not behind a Sharon-Labor team.
Sharon lost his parliamentary majority while ramming the Gaza withdrawal proposal through his Cabinet, dismissing one pro-settlement faction, while part of another one walked out in protest.
The plan calls for removing all 7,500 Jewish settlers and the military from Gaza by the end of 2005. Four small settlements from the northern West Bank (search) would also be evacuated.
Sharon and his Likud Party had for decades championed settlement construction. Sharon's sudden about-face, favoring removal of settlements in Gaza and the West Bank for the first time since Israel captured the territories in the 1967 Middle East war, angered his own power base but won praise from his parliamentary opponents in Labor.
To shore up Sharon's coalition, Labor pledged to abstain in votes of no confidence in the parliament, keeping the government afloat though it lacks a majority.
On Wednesday, Labor took its backing a step further, abstaining on an opposition move to dissolve the parliament and call elections. The proposal was voted down 53-13 with 15 abstentions. Traditionally, all opposition factions vote in favor of such bills.
Under Israeli law, a motion to call elections cannot be filed again for six months, removing some of the pressure on the shaky government, though it could still be vulnerable to no-confidence motions.
Labor had said it would not consider joining Sharon's government until the attorney general ruled on a bribery case involving the premier. On Tuesday, the case was closed for lack of evidence. Afterward, Labor Party leader Shimon Peres hinted strongly that he wants to guide his party back into the government.
"The Labor Party has only one consideration — what will promote peace, what will hasten the evacuation of the Gaza Strip," Peres said.
However, some Labor lawmakers are opposed, preferring to try to topple the government. Sharon and Labor teamed up during Sharon's first term as premier from 2001 to 2003, but the government broke apart over the issue of funding settlements.
Also, Likud opponents of the Gaza pullout plan oppose bringing in their ideological opponents from Labor, which favors evacuating most of the settlements in the West Bank as well as the ones in Gaza. Sharon's plan is to trade the small Gaza settlements for a strengthened hold over large parts of the West Bank — provoking stiff Palestinian criticism.
A poll published Wednesday in the Yediot Ahronot daily showed that Israelis are doubtful about reconstituting the Labor-Likud team.
According to the Dahaf poll, only 37 percent supported Labor's entering the government, while 54 percent were opposed. The poll questioned 500 Israeli adults and had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
Also Wednesday, Israel contractors were forced to halt construction of a section of a West Bank separation barrier after clashes erupted between soldiers and hundreds of Palestinian demonstrators. Witnesses said soldiers fired tear gas, but no injuries were reported.
Israel says the barrier is necessary to stop Palestinian homicide bombers, but Palestinians complain it dips deep into the West Bank.
Also, Israeli forces arrested two girls, 14 and 15, suspected of planning a homicide bomb attack, security officials said. Relatives confirmed the arrests, but said they knew of no links between the girls and militant activities.
In the West Bank town of Jenin, Israeli troops hunting for fugitives killed a Palestinian militant. Palestinians said a bus driver nearby was shot and died later in a hospital.
The army said there were heavy exchanges of fire as the fugitive and other gunmen fired on troops.