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Israeli Legislators Vote Against Sharon Speech for Gaza Pullout

By Greg Myre

The New York Times -- JERUSALEM

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip suffered a symbolic setback on Monday when the legislature voted to reject the speech in which he raised the proposal.

The vote was nonbinding, but demonstrated the tough opposition Sharon is facing.

In an address opening the winter session of the legislature, Sharon said evacuating Israelis from Gaza was a difficult but necessary move, and he urged lawmakers to approve the measure when it is formally presented Oct. 25.

Some lawmakers heckled Sharon during his long speech, which focused on the Gaza issue. And afterward, the legislature voted 53-44 to reject his speech, using a traditional sign of displeasure.

Sharon might fare better when the actual vote on his Gaza proposal is conducted. Monday’s informal ballot allowed the members of the fractious legislature to express opposition when nothing of substance was on the line.

Still, the vote showed that Sharon was struggling in his effort to persuade lawmakers to bring an end to Israel’s presence in the volatile coastal territory, which is the scene of almost daily fighting.

If he does not win the passage of his Gaza initiative, it will also bode ill for the survival of his coalition government, which lost its parliamentary majority over the summer. In Monday’s legislative session, the government survived two no-confidence votes.

Opinion polls consistently show that about two-thirds of Israelis favor Sharon’s plan, which calls for the withdrawal of all 8,000 settlers in the Gaza Strip and a few hundred in the West Bank. But the prime minister is facing a vocal and well-organized campaign by the settlers and right-wing Israelis who denounce the move as a “concession to Palestinian terrorism.”

In his speech, Sharon acknowledged that his withdrawal plan “is a source of great controversy.” He also expressed empathy for the Gaza families that would be uprooted.