Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's new government is set to take office next week, assuring a Cabinet majority in favor of his plan to pull out of Gaza and part of the West Bank, after a small ultra-Orthodox Jewish party agreed to join.
United Torah Judaism announced Wednesday that it will be part of the new government, replacing the hardline coalition that crumbled last summer over opposition to Sharon's plan to remove all 21 Gaza settlements and four from the West Bank.
Sharon's Likud, with 40 seats in the 120-member parliament, will be joined by the moderate Labor Party with 21 seats and UTJ with five, providing a majority of 66.
"I believe that already next week I can present the parliament a new coalition that will lead the state of Israel," Sharon told a Likud meeting after the UTJ decision.
Avraham Ravitz, a UTJ representative in parliament, told Israel TV that the 95-year-old spiritual leader of the party, Rabbi Shalom Elyashiv, gave his approval for joining Sharon's team on Wednesday afternoon.
Ravitz said Elyashiv had to struggle with widespread opposition among Orthodox Jews to Sharon's pullout plan.
Israel TV said Sharon would present his new government to the parliament on Monday for a vote of confidence, after which it would take office. Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, 81, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is to be Sharon's second vice premier, and seven other Labor lawmakers will become Cabinet ministers.
In Palestinian politics, meanwhile, Mahmoud Abbas, the leading candidate for Palestinian president, received an enthusiastic welcome Wednesday from backers of his Fatah Party in the southern West Bank city of Hebron, ahead of the Jan. 9 election.
Hebron is a Hamas stronghold. Abbas has been making hard-line statements in recent days, hoping to attract the support of younger, more militant Palestinians.
Polls show he has a huge lead over his nearest rival, but analysts say he needs two-thirds of the vote to inherit some of Yasser Arafat's emotional support and clout.
Even with a new, centrist Israeli government in office, Sharon's pullout plan will still face parliamentary challenges. Thirteen Likud representatives who oppose the withdrawal are threatening to vote against the government and hold up legislation to allow its implementation.
Already a key law is stuck in a parliamentary committee because of Likud opposition, reflecting dissatisfaction among Sharon's traditional supporters with his new policy.
After decades of promoting settlement construction and expansion, Sharon switched gears a year ago with his pullout plan, infuriating his former friends. He explained that settlements with 8,200 Jews cannot continue to exist in the Gaza Strip among 1.3 million hostile Palestinians.
Settlers are opposed, some of them violently. After settlers clashed with soldiers on Monday over a relatively small matter -- demolishing two temporary structures at an unauthorized West Bank outpost -- Sharon warned he and his government will crack down on violent opponents.
"They shouldn't dare to even raise a hand against a policeman or a soldier," Sharon declared during a meeting with soldiers who weathered the clash with settlers on Monday. "We will act against (them) with all our might."
A soldier who called on his unit to defy orders to destroy the structures was sentenced Wednesday to 28 days in a military lockup, the military said.