JERUSALEM, March 29 -- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to pull troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip this year cleared its final legislative hurdle Tuesday when Israel's parliament approved the government's 2005 budget, which opponents had hoped would block the withdrawal or, alternatively, bring down the government.
The lawmakers voted 58 to 36 to approve the budget one day after they rejected a proposal to submit the Gaza pullout to a national referendum. Sharon has said he hopes to begin evacuation of the 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza in mid-July and finish in about four weeks.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, center, and his deputies, Ehud Olmert, left, and Shimon Peres, cast votes on the government's 2005 budget.
(David Silverman -- Getty Images)
Under Sharon's unilateral disengagement plan, first proposed in December 2003, about 8,250 Jewish settlers would leave Gaza, along with the thousands of Israeli soldiers who protect them. The plan also calls for the evacuation of four isolated settlements in the northern West Bank with about 500 settlers.
The withdrawal, if it proceeds as planned, would mark the first time Israel has relinquished territory seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war since 1989, when the handover of the resort town of Taba to Egypt completed Israel's withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula under the Camp David peace agreement.
"Sharon had this vision, for whatever reason, and he managed to maneuver it through every stage, even in spite of setbacks in his own party. It's really an amazing feat," said Asher Arian, a senior fellow with the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem. "It's the first time in the last 35 years that the right wing has lost, and they're not used to it, and that's why there's so much anguish and hand-wringing in the country."
Opponents of the disengagement plan said they would move their fight from parliament to the streets, and the Yesha Council, an umbrella organization of Jewish settlements, warned that settlers might fight what it termed the "expulsion of Jews" from Gaza.
Opponents of the pullout argue that it rewards Palestinian terrorism because it was planned as a unilateral initiative and gives Israel nothing in return. Palestinian militant groups have hailed the withdrawal as a major achievement of their 4 1/2-year uprising against Israel.
Sharon argues that Israel has wasted too much money and too many lives protecting settlers in Gaza, who are surrounded by about 1.3 million Palestinians. Public opinion polls show that most Israelis agree, with about two-thirds favoring the pullout.
In addition, Sharon has made what senior aides describe as a strategic trade-off, winning broad international support for the Gaza withdrawal while consolidating Israel's control over the West Bank and expanding settlements there. In the four years since Sharon took office, the number of settlers in the West Bank has increased by more than 25 percent, from about 193,000 in early 2001 to more than 243,000, according to Interior Ministry statistics. They live in about 120 settlements and 100 unauthorized settlement outposts, amid about 2.2 million Palestinians.
Sharon has long been one of the architects of Israel's settlement expansion, and many settlers consider his dogged pursuit of a Gaza pullout to be a betrayal. Israeli security officials have warned of a backlash and reported death threats against the prime minister from conservative religious and ultranationalist groups.
The plan cost Sharon his parliamentary majority last year, forcing him to form a new government. In the process, his pro-settlement Likud Party -- with 40 members, the largest group in parliament -- has effectively split in half. At the same time, some of Sharon's oldest political enemies have lent him their support in recent months, voting in parliament to avert dozens of no-confidence motions and other key votes to keep the government -- and with it, the disengagement plan -- from falling.
Such was the case in Tuesday's budget vote, and the victory did not come cheap. Unable to win a majority in December to pass Sharon's $62 billion spending plan for 2005, the government has been running at 2004 spending levels. If a budget had not been passed by Thursday, the government would have automatically fallen.
In the end, Sharon won by luring pro-disengagement parties into his camp, even though some did not like his budget proposal, by agreeing to fund their pet projects and threatening to blame them for killing the Gaza withdrawal if the government collapsed.
The United Torah Judaism Party received about $67 million for religious schools in exchange for its five votes; the Labor Party got about $140 million for 19 of its 21 votes; and the secular Shinui Party, the final holdout, agreed over the weekend that its 14 members would vote for the budget in exchange for $163 million in additional funding for universities, reserve soldiers and other projects.
The budget sets aside about $510 million to pay for disengagement, including compensation packages of up to $750,000 for each family evacuated. The plan is expected to cost about another $1 billion to complete.