TEL AVIV, Jan. 5 (JTA) Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took a step this week that appears to boost his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. Ironically, that step was taken when Sharon convinced United Torah Judaism, a religious political party that opposes his withdrawal plan, to join his national unity government. “I believe that, as early as next week, we will present in the Knesset a new government that will lead the State of Israel,” Sharon told members of his Likud Party on Wednesday. “The people chose us to lead it to peace and security, calm and prosperity. The Likud will achieve this mission.” The UTJ’s agreement to join forces with Sharon, despite the misgivings of its sages at his withdrawal plan, could not have come at a better time for the embattled former general. Scuffles that erupted between settlers and soldiers during the evacuation of the illegal West Bank outpost at Yitzhar this week stirred concern that the government may not have the muscle to push through major withdrawals, as it plans to do this year. Sharon lost his parliamentary majority last year after removing right-wing nationalist factions and the secular Shinui Party from his coalition. That raised the possibility of early elections, a possibility that now appears to be unlikely. Likud was expected to sign a coalition deal Thursday with the UTJ and the main opposition party, Labor, granting Sharon control of 66 of the 120 Knesset seats. Because Sharon has 61 seats without UTJ, he does not necessarily need the party’s five lawmakers to support his withdrawal plan, but having UTJ in the coalition gives Sharon a broader majority. The UTJ, which caters mostly to fervently religious Ashkenazi voters, said it was joining the government for a three-month probationary period, in order to undo Shinui-sponsored legislation and secure funding for its schools. “This government has majority support for the disengagement plan without us,” UTJ faction chief Rabbi Avraham Ravitz told Army Radio. “We certainly oppose” it, “but we are still joining up.” Meanwhile, Sharon has personally responded to fears of a mutiny in the ranks when the time comes to implement his plan. “Do not dare raise a hand against soldiers,” Sharon said during a visit to a West Bank army base Wednesday, his remarks intended for restive settlers. “If you want to lay into someone, lay into me. Lay off the Israel Defense Forces.” The prime minister said he ordered the Justice Ministry to toughen laws against those who incite to political violence. In one such case, an off-duty soldier who urged comrades not to evacuate Yitzhar on Monday was sentenced to 28 days in a military prison.
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