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The Israeli parliament has rejected Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's speech outlining his plans for a total withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The Knesset vote rejected his traditional state-of-the-nation address at the opening of the winter session.
The vote of 53-44 against Mr. Sharon's speech was described by Israeli media as a ringing rejection and a humiliation for the prime minister. The Israeli leader's Likud Party holds 40 seats in the Knesset. At least a quarter of the Likkud members voted against accepting his speech outlining his political and economic agenda, in which he spoke of his plans for a total pull out from Gaza and the evacuation of four West Bank settlements near Jenin.
Although the vote was symbolic and without any political consequences, it illustrated how difficult the road ahead is likely to be for Mr. Sharon. Senior Likud official Gidon Sar - who, himself, opposes the Gaza pullout - says, if the parliament does approve it, holding the government together will be a real challenge. As you know, we are in that situation of a minority government since June," he said. "I cannot say there is no political danger. There is a clear political danger."
Two of the six members of the National Religious Party have already pulled out of the government, over the disengagement plan. The other four have said they will leave too, rather than be a part of the government, once the debate over the withdrawal begins in the parliament. NRP Knesset member Shaul Yahalon says the only reason the party is still in the government is to keep the pro-disengagement parties from joining the coalition. "If the Labor Party [is] joining Mr. Sharon, it is the last point and the disengagement will occur surely," he said. "Therefore, we prevent ourselves from breaking down the coalition only because [of] this reason."
Mr. Sharon representatives are now busily engaged in talks with other political parties, to see if a new coalition can be put together, should the current government fall. Parliament debate on the issue is to begin once the plan is presented, October 25.