Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won a critical vote in Israel's parliament Wednesday for his plan to withdraw Israeli settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip. But in a sign that his government and policies still face significant opposition, Sharon delayed the first vote on his proposed budget, fearing that its defeat could collapse his minority coalition.
With the backing of parties that usually oppose him, Sharon won a 64-to-44 vote to fund the evacuation, resettlement and redeployment of Jewish settlers and Israeli troops from Gaza beginning next summer as part of his disengagement plan. Nine lawmakers abstained, and three were not present.
The plan to withdraw 8,150 settlers from 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and about 470 residents from four settlements in the northern West Bank was approved in concept last week during a stormy session of Israel's parliament, the Knesset. Before it is fully enacted, the proposal still faces legislative hurdles in the Knesset and cabinet this year and next. The bill approved Wednesday provides funding for the plan, estimated to cost between $450 million and $650 million.
Sharon's Likud Party is deeply divided over his withdrawal plan, and 17 of its 40 Knesset members refused to back the funding bill. They were joined by other traditional allies of Sharon from ultranationalist and religious parties. As happened last week, Sharon was supported by more dovish segments of the Knesset -- notably the main opposition Labor Party, whose 19 members unanimously backed the bill.
But Sharon pulled his $60 billion budget proposal for 2005, which was scheduled for a vote Wednesday, when it appeared that it did not have enough support to pass. Although its failure would not automatically bring down the government, Sharon has said that he would consider the bill's defeat a vote of no confidence, which could force the formation of a new government or early elections.
A new vote on the budget was not scheduled, allowing Sharon some time to solicit more support.
"He needs a majority, enough votes to pass it, and he didn't want to fail on the first roll call," said Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin. "Eventually he will get the support he needs, but he needs more negotiation and talks. As soon as possible, the vote will be rescheduled."
The developments offered a preview of what life could be like for Sharon for the foreseeable future. His minority coalition has about 58 members in the 120-seat Knesset, a number that could drop to 55 next week if the National Religious Party follows through on its threat to resign over the disengagement plan. Sharon would have to rely on new political parties, and focus on different issues, to keep his government from falling.
Sharon has faced more than 59 no-confidence motions since proposing his disengagement plan last December. Political analysts question how long he can continue his political balancing act, and whether opposition parties will remain so committed to the disengagement plan that they will continue to prop up Sharon despite significant ideological differences.
Among other issues, the disengagement funding bill established how much settler families will be compensated for leaving the Gaza Strip, based on factors such as the size of their home, the location of their new one, the number of family members and whether they own a business in Gaza. In general, families will be eligible for between about $100,000 to $500,000, although the amount is expected to increase as the government seeks the support of more lawmakers. Israeli news reports said this week that the maximum payment had ballooned to about $750,000.