ERUSALEM The Israeli parliament approved the 2005 state budget on Tuesday, removing the last legislative obstacle to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip this summer.
The 58-36 vote dashed hopes of Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip and their supporters of bringing down Sharon's government before the planned withdrawal and preventing the pullout by political means.
Failure to pass the budget by Thursday would have forced new elections within three months, delaying or even shelving the plan to evacuate all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank.
On Monday, parliament overwhelmingly rejected a national referendum on the pullout, a move advocated by the settlers that could have put the plan on hold.
Acknowledging political defeat, settler leaders said they would take their struggle to the streets and to the Gaza settlements, warning that they would bring out 100,000 protesters to block the withdrawal, known as the disengagement plan.
Passage of the budget, capping a year of intense political maneuvering, was a resounding victory for Sharon, who faced a mutiny from lawmakers in his Likud party and resistance from former rightist allies who tried to scuttle the pullout.
But Sharon struck deals on the budget with the opposition Shinui party, which has 15 seats in the 120-member legislature, and with small fervently-Orthodox and Israeli Arab factions, promising funds for their constituencies in exchange for support.
"In parliamentary terms it is signed and sealed; the disengagement is on its way," said Ehud Yatom, a Likud lawmaker opposed to the withdrawal.
Sharon plans to evacuate about 8,500 settlers in the Gaza Strip and 500 in the West Bank over several weeks, starting the last week in July. Settlers have been given until July 20 to leave or face eviction.
Leaders of the settlers have vowed to send tens of thousands of protesters to the streets and to reinforce the settlements in order to prevent Israeli police officers and soldiers from evacuating them.
Groups of protesters have blocked traffic on major highways a few times in recent weeks by sitting on the roads and burning tires.
To prevent people from reaching the settlements, the Israeli army plans to declare them closed military zones at least 45 days before the planned evacuation. While the settler leadership has called for non-violent protest, Israeli security officials have warned that Jewish extremists and hard-core opponents of the withdrawal among the settlers could violently resist the evacuation, possibly with guns.
Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra said Tuesday that he was advised by someone close to the settler leadership to collect the settlers' weapons before the withdrawal.
The minister did not name the person who suggested disarming the settlers, but Israel Radio identified him as Effi Eitam, a rightist lawmaker who resigned from Sharon's government in protest over the withdrawal plan. Eitam recently announced that he would move to the Gaza Strip in a show of support for the settlers.
Despite large demonstrations by the settlers and their supporters in recent months, opinion polls have consistently shown that two-thirds of Israelis support the withdrawal from Gaza, an impoverished coastal strip where the settlers live in tightly guarded enclaves among 1.3 million Palestinians.
Sharon has argued that the Gaza settlements would not be retained in any future agreement with the Palestinians and, therefore, are not worth the military and economic cost of maintaining them.