Jerusalem Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won a historic victory Tuesday when parliament voted to approve his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank -- the first time lawmakers have authorized the removal of Jewish settlements from lands the Palestinians claim for a state.
The 67-45 vote, with seven abstentions, gave strong backing to Sharon's plan to evacuate 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip, where 8,200 Jewish settlers live amid 1.3 million Palestinians, and four in the West Bank.
"I think that the prime minister of Israel had a great victory tonight," Vice Premier Ehud Olmert told CNN.
Sharon won with the help of dovish opposition parties. Many members of his center-right coalition, as well as religious opposition parties, voted against him.
Sharon had hoped a strong victory such as the one he secured Tuesday would allow him to fend off settlers' calls for a national referendum on the plan -- something the prime minister has denounced as a delaying tactic by his opponents.
However, immediately after the vote four key Likud ministers who had voted in favor demanded Sharon call a referendum or said they would resign from the government.
The U.S. State Department praised the vote as a step forward in peacemaking with the Palestinians. "We think the withdrawal plan presents an opportunity to advance the interests of both sides," Deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said.
Sharon's victory came a day after he surprised both detractors and supporters by giving a speech accusing settlers of suffering from a "messianic complex" and telling Palestinians that Israel has no desire to rule over them.
The victory appeared to signal a final break between the settlers and Sharon, who spent most of his career championing their cause.
Thousands of Jewish settlers demonstrated outside the Knesset, or parliament, in a boisterous show of force Tuesday, denouncing Sharon as a traitor.
"I came here to tell the people of Israel that this is our land and my home," said David Pinipnta, 31, of the Gaza settlement of Neve Dekalim. "No power on earth can move me from it."
Sharon entered the parliament building surrounded by an unprecedented 16 bodyguards -- reflecting security officials' fears of an attack by right-wing extremists who believe the prime minister is forsaking God's will by giving up parts of the biblical Land of Israel.