Israel's Parliament Tuesday night voted for the first time in 37 years of occupation to remove Jewish settlements from the Palestinian territories in a historic move that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said paved the way to the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
At the end of two days of at times raucous and bitter parliamentary debate, Sharon was forced to rely on the opposition to carry through his "unilateral disengagement plan" after his Likud Party split over the removal of all Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and a small part of the West Bank. Sharon won, with 67 of the 120 M.P.'s voting for the plan and 45 against. The remainder abstained.
Israel's deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said: "The state of Israel is moving forward. We are going to change the status quo in the Middle East. We are going to make painful concessions. There is no return from this."
Four cabinet ministers, including Sharon's arch-rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, who voted in favor, nonetheless threatened to resign in a fortnight unless the prime minister agreed to a national referendum on the plan. The small National Religious Party also threatened to walk out of the government if there was not a plebiscite. But Sharon continued to resist the pressure, saying that a referendum would delay the withdrawal by a year.
After the vote, the prime minister swiftly carried out his threat to sack any cabinet ministers voting against disengagement by dismissing Uzi Landau, the leader of the ruling party's rebels in Parliament. Sharon's aides predicted that opposition within his party and government to the plan may force him to put together a new ruling coalition or call early elections.
Speaking to Parliament on Monday, Sharon broke with his core constituency among the settlers and right-wing Israelis when he called the vote a "fateful moment for Israel."
The withdrawal plan removes only about 8,000 settlers, the bulk living in the Gaza Strip. About 420,000 Jews will remain in Israel's West Bank colonies and East Jerusalem, occupied in 1967.
The leader of the Labor opposition, Shimon Peres, threw his party's weight behind the plan because, he said, it was a historic opportunity that would create momentum toward a resolution of the Palestinian conflict. "This is a historic vote that will put the country back onto the right course. Once we return it will be hard to reverse it," he said.
Palestinian officials remain deeply suspicious of the plan, saying the withdrawal from Gaza is designed to shield an expansion of Israeli control in the West Bank. Nearly half of Likud's M.P.'s, led by Landau, voted against the disengagement process Tuesday night. "Unilateral withdrawal is simply signaling to the Palestinians that terrorism rewards and that Israel is in an ongoing retreat. "This is not going to reduce terrorism, it is going to boost it," he said. "We see all these territories as our homeland. For many of us it's as though they are encroaching on our very right to be there, but also it casts a shadow on our ability to really defend ourselves.
"There are many, many Arabs who hate our guts and want our destruction. We don't want to see an additional terrorist state on our border."
Some opponents have accused Sharon of "caving in to terrorism" and of being a traitor because he is considered the godfather of the settlements and oversaw the massive expansion of Israel's West Bank and Gaza colonies during the '70s and '80s. But the latest opinion poll, in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, shows overwhelming public support for the withdrawal, with 65 percent of Israelis in favor and 26 percent opposed. Several thousand settlers and their supporters rallied outside Parliament, but there were far fewer protesters than the organizers predicted.
Jonathon Patinkin, from Beit El settlement in the West Bank, headed three generations of his family at the protest. "This is a battle. We haven't lost the war yet," he said. "If it goes on we will lose all the settlements. It is only the first step in a domino effect. Even Jerusalem is at risk." The protesters waved signs saying: "Settlements equal security, disengagement equals transfer" and "Soldiers, disobey orders to evacuate us."
Some of the more vitriolic slogans of previous rallies, such as calling Sharon a Nazi, were missing after the police warned they would not permit such incitement at a time when Israel was remembering the ninth anniversary of the assassination of its former prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin. In Gaza, Hamas hailed the vote as a victory for Palestinian resistance. "The approval today of the Sharon plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip is a big achievement of the Palestinian people and the resistance, which alone has pushed the Zionist enemy to think of leaving Gaza," said the group's spokesman, Mushir al Masri.
The cabinet still has to approve four stages of the withdrawal from Gaza.