JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's (search) new government took office Monday after a close parliamentary vote, providing a Cabinet majority in favor of his plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip (search) and part of the West Bank in the summer.
At the end of a 3 1/2-hour debate, the parliament narrowly approved the new coalition by a vote of 58 to 56 with six abstentions. After the vote, new ministers took their oaths and the government assumed power.
The new government, with 66 of the 120 seats in parliament, includes the dovish Labor Party, with its leader, Shimon Peres (search), as Sharon's second vice premier, alongside Ehud Olmert of Sharon's Likud Party. The other new member is United Torah Judaism, a small ultra-Orthodox faction.
To bring down the government, the opposition must muster 61 votes of the 120 members of parliament. With a pledge by Yahad, a dovish party with six seats, to prop up the government as long as it works toward pulling out of Gaza, Sharon's new team appears solidly in power.
However, Yahad veteran Yossi Sarid reversed Sharon's own admonition to new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas: "You will be judged by your actions, just as you say about the Palestinians," Sarid told the house.
Sharon has said his new Cabinet will vote on the pullout plan this month. Officials in Sharon's office said the parliament is to vote on a bill providing compensation to uprooted settlers by the end of the month. The evacuation is to begin in July.
To meet all the targets, Sharon must contend with stiff opposition from his own Likud Party. Thirteen of the 40 party members of parliament oppose the pullout and threatened to vote against his new government. The 13 rebels are expected to oppose each step of the process in the parliament. A key law has already been held up in a committee because of balky Likud members.
Sharon's statement to the Knesset, or parliament, was in the form of a formal announcement of the list of new ministers, without comment. He was interrupted by loud objections from the floor by Effie Eitam, head of the National Religious Party, one of the factions that left Sharon's former government because of objections to the withdrawal plan.
Sharon's Cabinet approved the inclusion of the two new parties earlier Monday.
Sharon warned Likud rebels in a party meeting ahead of the vote that they would bring a "disaster" on the country if they prevented the formation of the new coalition and forced early elections.
"Gentlemen, this time it won't happen. These same people who are trying to destroy and divide the Likud won't succeed," Sharon told the lawmakers, with a stern look on his face.
Sharon hopes to pull Israeli troops and 8,800 Jewish settlers out of the Gaza Strip and remove four West Bank settlements by the end of the summer.
Settlers and their allies have launched a campaign against the evacuation plan. On Monday dozens of them demonstrated outside the parliament, playing loud music and shouting "Bring him down!" in reference to Sharon.