Parliament swept aside another potential obstacle Monday to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, overwhelmingly rejecting a proposal for holding a national referendum on the pullout.
Opponents of the withdrawal had latched onto the plebiscite as a last-ditch legislative effort to delay and ultimately scuttle the withdrawal, set for the summer. The defeat Monday left withdrawal opponents with few remaining options.
In other developments:
Settler leaders are planning a 36-hour protest outside the Knesset (parliament) building, although they admit it could be their final major political struggle against the Gaza withdrawal.
An international campaign similar to the one that helped end apartheid in South Africa is needed to forge an independent Palestinian state at peace with Israel, Malaysia's prime minister said Monday. "Like the struggle against apartheid, the struggle of the Palestinian people against Israeli occupation of their country enjoys enormous support from the global community," he said in a speech.
Israeli troops arrested eight supporters of the militant Islamic Jihad group in the West Bank on suspicion they were trying to build rockets. One soldier was lightly hurt by an explosive device thrown at troops during the raid in the town of Jenin.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas held talks Monday with Hamas leaders on the terms of the participation of militant groups in the PLO. On Sunday, Abbas met with members of the Islamic Jihad group.
Abbas invited Hamas and Islamic Jihad to attend a meeting of the PLO Executive Committe, the PLO's top decision-making body, as observers Tuesday. Islamic Jihad accepted, while Hamas said it has not yet decided.
Israeli legislators voted 72-39 to reject the referendum proposal.
Sharon had accused withdrawal opponents of trying to buy time by seeking a referendum; preparations for a national vote would have taken months, during which opponents could try again to bring down Sharon. According to opinion polls, a large majority of Israelis support the Gaza withdrawal.
Approval of a referendum could have brought down Sharon's government and forced new elections. Sharon's main coalition partner, the moderate Labor Party, had warned it would quit the coalition if a referendum were approved. Labor is a staunch supporter of the Gaza withdrawal.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, meanwhile, sharply criticized the United States after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reiterated support for Israel's plans to keep large Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank. "This (U.S.) policy is completely incomprehensible," Qureia told reporters Monday.
Israeli officials last week confirmed plans to build 3,500 homes in the Maaleh Adumim settlement, the West Bank's largest, near Jerusalem.