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Deputy Premier Olmert: ’Massive Vote Proves There Is No Way To Halt Gaza Withdrawal’

MK Eitam: ’We’ll Now Call Hundreds Of Thousands Of Protestors To Block The Evacuation’

Sharon Officials: ’There Is No Majority For The Referendum

Which Would Only Deepen Differences Among Israelis’

Israel’s Parliament the Knesset has voted down a bill to hold a national referendum on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and 4 West Bank settlements. The vote was 72-39 against the referendum in the 120 members Knesset. The referendum is widely viewed as a ruse to block the withdrawal. Prime Minister Sharon’s ruling Likud party split over the referendum with more voting for it than against. In any case, opponents to the withdrawal are not giving up.

Olmert & Sharon in Knesset Vote

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his supporters say there is no way the Gaza withdrawal can now be stopped. However, opponents now plan on massing hundreds of thousands of protestors in the Gaza Strip and throughout the country to block the evacuation.After the stormy debate, Deputy Premier Ehud Olmert declared the vote against the referendum sent a dramatic message to the Palestinians, the Israeli people and the entire world. Israel hopes very much that the Palestinians will understand that Israel has embarked on a dramatic process of change and that they’ll be ready to cooperate. The 72-39 vote against the referendum was a dramatic statement that the disengagement will be carried out as planned. This is the decision of the overwhelming majority Israeli Knesset members and reflects Israeli public opinion. Olmert added: ’Israel wants disengagement and wants to start an historic breakthrough with the Palestinians’. When asked if there was any way the evacuation could be stopped Olmert replied emphatically: ‘No!’

This was also the view of a senior advisor to Prime Minister Sharon. He said Sharon was not surprised by the massive vote against the referendum, which would have put his evacuation plan on hold or killed it altogether. The official went on to say the Prime Minister is confident the Knesset will also approve the new state budget this week preventing the fall of the government. Then it will be a matter of moving full steam ahead on the withdrawal planned for this summer.Several key cabinet ministers including his Likud rival Finance Minister Bibi Netanyahu defied Sharon by voting for the referendum. The Sharon official brushed this aside saying it was expected. However, the feud is deepening. After Netanyahu called on Shas Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to support the referendum, Sharon’s office viewed this as going behind the Prime Minister’s back. One Sharon official was quoted in a newspaper as saying that: ’Netanyahu had better watch his back from now on!’ The Prime Minister reacted by saying he himself had not made such a comment.

  • Likud Party Split – Sharon’s Likud party did in fact decide in favor of the referendum despite the Prime minister’s position. The party’s central committee instructed Likud MKs to vote for it in the Knesset – 27 did as compared with only 13 who backed Sharon. Likud MK Gilad Erdan later warned that the Likud’s central committee ‘will probably find a way to punish those who did not vote for the referendum. Could this lead to an eventual split in the ruling party? It’s possible, however opinion polls indicate that Israeli voters still favor Sharon over Netanyahu.
  • Withdrawal Opponents - Likud MK Uzi Landau and MK Efi Eitam of the far right both say the battle against the withdrawal is not over. Eitam has just gone to live in a Gaza Strip settlement and he says that hundreds of thousands of protestors will mass in the Gaza Strip with the goal of physically halting the withdrawal. Could this lead to a civil war? Eitam says the protestors will use peaceful means only but Sharon will bear responsibility for whatever happens because he has run rough shod over Israeli democracy. Eitam argues that the prime minister stole the votes of right-wingers by his flip-flop on the Gaza withdrawal under Palestinian fire.
Settlers vs. IDF (Archive - Photo: Amit Shabi)

It is hard to foresee what will happen in the run-up to the disengagement and the actual evacuation planned for some time after July 20th. Today’s vote against the referendum was amazing in several respects: most of the Prime Minister’s own Likud members against Sharon in favor of the referendum. The Prime Minister had to count on left wing Labor and opposition parties including all the Arab MKs. (The ultra-orthodox party Shas voted against the referendum in a second round of balloting after it was clear that Sharon already had a majority opposed to it). During the hectic debate, the Prime Minister did not speak; in a new twist, it was Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, now a cabinet minister, who took the podium to fiercely defend none other than Ariel Sharon from his own Likud critics.

David Essing

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