Wed, Mar 30, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Knesset rejects referendum on pullout

THREATS Hardliners responded to the Israeli parliament's decision by vowing to bring 100,000 protesters to the settlements slated for evacuation to prevent the withdrawal


Israel's parliament easily voted down a bill on Monday calling for a national referendum on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's 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 this year's 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 on 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, a withdrawal opponent in Sharon's own Likud Party, met with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, 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 tomorrow, 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.

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