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No Gaza Pullout Vote In Israel

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.

  • With the expansion and a construction of separation barrier, Israel is effectively cutting off east Jerusalem, the Palestinians' intended capital, from a future state in the West Bank.

    U.S. officials said over the weekend that while they oppose continued construction in settlements, the demographic realities created by the settlement cannot be ignored in a final peace deal.

    "The American view is that while we will not prejudice the outcome of final status negotiations, the changes on the ground, the existing major Israeli population centers, will have to be taken into account in any final status negotiations," Rice told Israel Radio.

    The fate of Jerusalem and the Jewish settlements is to be negotiated in talks on a final peace deal. The Palestinians have complained that in signaling support for the annexation of some settlements by Israel, the United States is pre-empting the outcome of negotiations. "The U.S. administration is giving us signs that it supports the Israeli aggression," Qureia said Monday.

    The Maaleh Adumim expansion is expected to be a key item in separate meetings Sharon and Abbas will hold with President Bush in April.

    Before the parliament vote, a leading withdrawal opponent, legislator Uzi Landau from Sharon's 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. However, he also opposes holding a referendum fearing it would give Israel's secular majority a tool to use against the ultra-Orthodox minority.

    In the end, the rabbi instructed the Shas legislators to vote against the referendum.

    The proposed dismantling of all 21 Gaza settlements and four in the West Bank this summer has split Likud, a bastion of settlement backers taken by surprise by Sharon's sudden turnabout last year. Sharon was the main sponsor of settlement construction before presenting his pullout plan, explaining it would help Israel hang on to parts of the West Bank.

    The Gaza plan cleared a larger threat over the weekend, when the opposition Shinui Party changed its position and said it would vote in favor of the 2005 state budget this week. Sharon has to get the budget passed by Thursday, or step down. Until Shinui's about-face, he did not have an assured majority.

    However, Israel's Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear three petitions against the legality of the disengagement-settler compensation law that provides 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.

    Israel's military, meanwhile, lifted a blanket closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which had been imposed Wednesday for the Jewish holiday of Purim. Such closures are routine security measures. Even after the lifting of the ban, entry of Palestinians to Israel remains severely restricted.