Israeli Lawmakers OK Gaza Withdrawal Plan Sharon proposal passes easily despite fervent debate. It still requires Cabinet approval, and the government faces a budget test in March. Israeli Lawmakers OK Gaza Withdrawal Plan By Laura King, Times Staff Writer JERUSALEM Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's initiative to uproot the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip won final parliamentary approval Wednesday night after two days of acrimonious debate. The measure, which authorized nearly $1 billion in compensation for the roughly 8,000 settlers to be evacuated, passed easily in a 59-40 vote despite furious protests from right-wing lawmakers who were once the prime minister's closest allies. The plan still needs a final endorsement by Sharon's divided Cabinet, a showdown vote that is scheduled to take place Sunday. Several key members, including Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are said to be considering voting against the measure. Opponents of the Gaza withdrawal, which is scheduled to begin in midsummer, could still derail the plan if they manage to muster enough votes in the parliament, or Knesset, next month to defeat Sharon's annual budget. That would effectively topple his government because, under Israeli law, failure to pass the spending plan by March 31 automatically triggers new elections. Over the course of a marathon session that began Tuesday morning, lawmakers sifted through dozens of proposed amendments to the measure, including a bid to delay the pullout to allow for a nationwide referendum. Sharon firmly opposed a referendum, maintaining that the approval of the Knesset and the Cabinet would sufficiently reflect the will of the people. Wednesday's measure required the approval of only a majority of those voting. Many lawmakers in the 120-member Knesset abstained or were absent. Since Sharon unveiled the plan last year, polls have consistently indicated that a solid majority of Israelis want to relinquish Gaza, a densely populated, impoverished enclave that has long been a hotbed of activity by Palestinian militant groups. But settlers and their supporters have waged an increasingly strident campaign to block the withdrawal, including raucous street protests and even explicit threats aimed at Sharon and senior military and government officials involved in planning the evacuation. Some right-wing extremists have likened Sharon and his deputies to Nazis. Deputy Premier Shimon Peres, one of Israel's leading doves, delivered an impassioned appeal before the Knesset vote, saying that no durable peace with the Palestinians would be possible as long as Israeli settlers remained in Gaza. Halting the momentum toward a pullout now, he argued, would destroy the climate of reconciliation that has taken hold since the death in November of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the election in January of Mahmoud Abbas as his successor. "Let us get one thing clear: Gaza will never, ever be part of a Jewish state," Peres said. "What do you suggest we do with the 1.5 million Palestinians there? Never let them vote? What will you offer them an eternity of oppression and discrimination?" Supporters of the settlers argued, with equal passion, that the prime minister lacked the authority to uproot Gaza's 21 heavily guarded Jewish settlements, which many of the residents believe are theirs by biblical mandate. "The beliefs upon which I was raised, and in whose name I was elected to the Knesset, collapsed today," said Reuven Rivlin, a member of a faction in Sharon's conservative Likud Party that opposed the move. "Today's decision serves as a dramatic turning point in the Zionist positions" of the party, he said. Seeking to quell opposition to the plan, Sharon's government increased by about one-third the compensation package offered to settlers in Gaza and at four small settlements in the northern West Bank that also will be evacuated, to about $880 million. That works out to between $200,000 and $500,000 per settler family. Many Palestinians fear, however, that Sharon will use the pullout as a pretext for permanently annexing large Jewish settlement blocks in the West Bank. The prime minister has said that the Gaza withdrawal will strengthen Israel's claim to those areas, which the Palestinians want for their future state. Abbas is seeking to build internal support in advance of what may be unpopular concessions to Israel. The Palestinian leadership Wednesday approved a new Cabinet that is expected to put Abbas allies in several key posts. Palestinian sources and news reports said the lineup would include Gen. Nasser Yousef as minister for internal security. The appointment is seen as an important step toward bringing the fractious Palestinian security forces under unified command. Arafat's nephew, Nasser Kidwa, is expected to be named foreign minister. He served previously as the Palestinians' envoy to the United Nations. The new Cabinet is to be presented to Palestinian lawmakers next week. One unexpected wrinkle in the events surrounding the Gaza withdrawal emerged Wednesday when Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz cut short the tenure of the army's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon. That means a new commander will take over this summer, just days before the pullout is to begin. http://www.latimes.com/news/nationw...ry?coll=la-headlines-world&ctrack=2&cset=true Is this a smart move?