Israeli parliament backs Sharon’s Gaza pull-out

THE Israeli parliament gave final approval last night to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements.

In a 59 to 40 vote, the Knesset approved a bill to compensate the thousands of settlers who will be affected by the withdrawal.

Passage of the bill, which was expected, marked the final legislative approval required before the plan can be implemented.

However, the vote was not the final hurdle. Mr Sharon still needs to pass a budget by March 31 or his government will collapse, possibly taking the withdrawal plan down with it, and elections will be held.

That prospect increased yesterday when Israel’s ultra-orthodox Shas party announced it will not support the 2005 budget.

Without Shas support, Mr Sharon does not have a majority in parliament for the spending plan.

An election would delay - if not derail - Mr Sharon’s plan to pull-out of all Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements.

Shas leader Eli Yishai said the party would not support the budget or join Mr Sharon’s coalition.

Mr Sharon vowed on Tuesday that his flagship policy, which should see the 21 Gaza settlements evacuated by September, would not be derailed by extremists who have threatened his life and some of ministers.

He also revealed that what was initially intended as a unilateral measure was now being co-ordinated with the Palestinians, without giving further details.

“My own personal safety does not affect me or affect my plans,” he told reporters in Jerusalem.

“I am not concerned and I am determined to carry out the decision of the government and the Knesset.

“Such threats are intolerable (but) in my entire life I have never surrendered to threats and I have no intention of starting now.”

However, doubts about the seriousness of Mr Sharon’s intention to leave occupied Palestinian territory were raised yesterday after the surprise decision to effectively dismiss the army chief of staff, General Moshe Yaalon.

The general is not being offered the customary extension to his posting.

Labour MP Efraim Sneh said that the timing of Gen Yaalon’s departure just before the start of the pullout “endangers the prospects of the plan’s success.”

Meanwhile, Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qurei will continue to lead the government but up to eight of the 24 other ministers are likely to step aside or be sacked, according to parliamentary sources.

The current Palestinian representative to the United Nations, Nasser al-Qidwa is tipped to become foreign minister. Nasr Yussuf is expected to be made interior minister, an appointment that was vetoed by the late Yasser Arafat in 2003.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s former security minister Mohammed Dahlan is also expected to return to office.

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