Sharon Fights to Save Coalition After Gaza Vote

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) struggled Monday to keep his fragile coalition intact after the Cabinet approved his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip by 2005.

Sharon declared victory after Sunday's 14-7 vote, even though implementation is months away. The ministers only approved a withdrawal in principle, delaying a vote on the removal of Israeli settlements until March. However, it was the first time an Israeli Cabinet approved removal of authorized settlements from the West Bank and Gaza.

The wording of the decision was sufficiently vague to defer a major political crisis, but did not resolve the deep divisions within Sharon's center-right coalition over the dismantling of settlements.

In the West Bank, meanwhile, Palestinians said a 24-year-old mentally disturbed man was shot near the town of Qalqiliya (search) as he approached Israel's separation barrier.

The army said the man had been carrying a suspicious bag. It said soldiers opened fire after he ran away and refused orders to halt.

Palestinians also said a 30-year-old paralyzed man was killed Sunday near an Israeli checkpoint north of Jerusalem while drinking coffee. They said Arafat Yaacoub was shot as Palestinian youths threw stones at soldiers nearby. The military said it was investigating.

Yaacoub had used a wheelchair since being shot in the back in a clash with Israeli troops in 1992.

In Gaza, Palestinian hospital officials said a 17-year-old was killed overnight near the Ganei Tal settlement. The army said it fired at a suspicious figure in an area often used by Palestinian militants.

In other developments Monday, rockets were fired toward Israel from southern Lebanon, and a Lebanese security official said they landed just short of the border. Maj. Sharon Feingold, an Israeli army spokeswoman, said the rockets had been fired at an Israeli naval vessel patrolling Israeli territorial waters.

Sharon's brittle coalition passed its first test Monday, when the parliament rejected a motion of no confidence by 46 to 31 with 15 abstentions.

On paper, Sharon's coalition still controls 61 seats in the 120-member parliament. However, disgruntled lawmakers from the National Religious Party (search), a pro-settler faction in the coalition, and from Sharon's own Likud Party (search), said they might vote against the prime minister or abstain.

Sharon had been expected to survive the votes since his opponents are unlikely to muster the 61 votes required to bring down a prime minister. However, his situation remains tenuous.

The NRP met Monday to discuss quitting the coalition, which would deprive Sharon of another six votes in parliament.

In a boost for Sharon, the opposition Labor Party said it would not vote against him Monday, assuring his survival for now.

Haim Ramon, a senior Labor lawmaker, hailed Sunday's approval of the Gaza plan as an "unprecedented historic move." He also indicated that Labor would be willing to join Sharon's government to help push the withdrawal plan forward. However, other Labor legislators oppose joining the coalition.

Sharon's top aide, Dov Weisglass, indicated Sharon is ready to join forces with Labor, which led peace efforts in the past decade.

"Even if the NRP decides to withdraw, the prime minister has a clear political alternative," Weisglass told Israel Army Radio.

Under Sharon's disengagement plan, Israel will uproot all 21 settlements in Gaza and four West Bank settlements by the end of 2005.

Sharon says a withdrawal boosts Israeli security and helps cement control of large blocs of West Bank settlements, where most settlers live.

"Disengagement has begun," a beaming Sharon said after the Cabinet vote. "The government decided today that by the end of 2005, Israel will leave Gaza and four settlements in the West Bank."

However, Cabinet opponents noted the compromise wording gives settlers and their backers plenty of time to scuttle the plan. Likud members defeated Sharon's disengagement proposal in a nonbinding party referendum May 2.

On Monday, Sharon himself indicated that implementation of the plan was conditional on Palestinian efforts to stop violence. "If there are unexpected developments it will be possible to stop the program," Sharon told Likud lawmakers, according to a participant.

The United States welcomed Sunday's vote, calling Sharon's plan a "courageous and historic step." It called on Israel to move forward with the plan as quickly as possible, in consultation with Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians.

Egypt, which borders Gaza, is preparing to play a central role in the withdrawal.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom traveled Monday to Cairo, where the two sides pledged to intensify security cooperation.

Egypt and Israel said they were near a deal for Egypt to train Palestinian security forces and help them take control of Gaza once Israel leaves. Gaza is a stronghold of the militant Islamic group Hamas. The deal also calls for Egypt to put 100 more police on its border with Gaza.

Shalom himself was one of the skeptics who was won over at the last minute by compromise wording of the Cabinet vote. But Monday, he told Army Radio that he was confident the plan could be carried out.

"If everything goes smoothly during this period and we see there is Palestinian cooperation and Egyptian cooperation and Jordanian cooperation, there is no doubt that the decision that will be made in nine months will be positive," he said.

Sharon's government seemed an unlikely candidate to be the first to remove settlements from Gaza and the West Bank.

It is made up of parties with ideologies backing Israel's control over the territories and headed by the decades-long champion of the settlement movement — Sharon himself.

Many remain skeptical, especially Palestinians, who want to establish a state in all of the West Bank and Gaza.

On Monday, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search) said the Israeli plan has been watered down so much it is now "meaningless."

"At first they were speaking about settlements. Now they are ignoring the settlements," he said. "At first they were speaking about dates. Now there is no date."