Knesset supports Sharon’s disengagement plans, but cabinet is divided

In the first government vote on the principle of removing settlers from the occupied territories, Israel’s parliament on 26 October gave its backing to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal plans for Gaza. But for Sharon, victory came at a price. Two ministers were sacked for failing to follow their leader’s line and four members of the cabinet have demanded a referendum on the issue, in the absence of which they have pledged to withdraw their support for the plan.

The Knesset vote returned a vote of 65-45 in favour of the proposals, with seven abstentions, but many of those who voted against were from Sharon’s Likud party. Deputy Internal Security Minister Michael Ratzon and Cabinet Minister Uzi Landau, the rebel leader, were both sacked for dissenting from Sharon’s plans, and he was once again left to rely on support from the Labour opposition.

Four ministers had threatened to withhold their support unless Sharon agreed to hold a referendum on the withdrawal. Although they backed the plans in the Knesset, the four, including Education Minister Limor Livnat and Sharon’s strongest Likud rival, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have threatened to resign unless a national poll is called within 14 days of the vote. Although the latest poll indicates that 65 per cent of Israelis are in favour of the disengagement plans, Sharon sees the process, which could take up to a year, as a delaying tactic.

The plan involves the withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from all 21 of the Jewish communities in the occupied Gaza Strip, as well as four of the 120 in the West Bank. Scheduled for completion in 2005, it is to be carried out in four stages, with each stage subject to a cabinet vote. The first of the votes is due to be held in March. If implemented, it would be Israel’s first wholesale removal of settlements since the Sinai Peninsula was returned to Egypt in 1982.

While Sharon’s proposals have drawn death threats from Israeli right-wingers, among Palestinians the reaction to the vote has been mixed. Mushir al-Masri, a spokesman for the militant Hamas group, called the approval of the plan ‘a big achievement for the Palestinian people and the resistance’, whereas Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat was less enthusiastic. ‘We’ve been watching [them] discussing our future, the future of our children, the future of the Palestinians,’ he said, ‘with one factor – us – being absent.’