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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 February, 2004, 01:31 GMT
Sharon survives parliament tests
Residents of Migron settlement, near Ramallah
Some right-wing MPs abstained over the settlers' issue
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has survived three no-confidence votes against him in the parliament.

The government won the votes despite some members abstaining in protest at plans to close many Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories.

Mr Sharon also won a vote on a speech summing up the coalition government's first year in power.

The votes came after a far-right minister urged the creation of four Palestinian cantons in the West Bank.

Avigdor Liberman told Israel Radio his plan was an alternative to proposals drawn up by Mr Sharon.

Mr Liberman said Palestinians would be allowed to travel between the cantons, but not to live outside them.

Mr Sharon has also come under renewed pressure internationally to redraw the route of the barrier Israel is already building in the West Bank.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told a conference in Israel that the European Union was looking for a substantial change.

Abstentions

In a rowdy session of the Knesset, opposition parties tabled three separate no-confidence motions founded on aspects of the government's social and economic policies.

Ariel Sharon
Sharon asked for more time for his government
Some MPs from the right-wing coalition members of the National Union and National Religious parties abstained in the votes, but the opposition was unable to muster the 61 votes out of 120 necessary to bring down the government.

The two parties have vowed to leave the government if Mr Sharon goes ahead with his settlement plan.

Later Mr Sharon called in a speech for more time to deal with Israel's economic crisis, brought about by factors like the global economic downtown and the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000.

The government has been in power for slightly less than a year, after Mr Sharon's Likud party won a crushing victory over Labour in elections in January 2003 and later formed a coalition with smaller, mostly right-wing parties.

Mr Sharon decided to turn approval of the speech into a vote of confidence, and it was backed by 45 votes to 36.

Fenced in

The plan to create Palestinian cantons, surrounded by fences, is outlined in a letter sent by Mr Liberman to 10 of his fellow cabinet ministers.

He said it was an attempt to present a right-wing alternative to Mr Sharon's disengagement plan and counter what he called "Oslo-style illusions".

The plan envisages the creation of one canton in Jenin and the surrounding area, one in Nablus, one in Tulkarm and one in Ramallah.

The cantons would have trade and traffic links, but Israel would control the checkpoints between them.

"This is not about torpedoing the prime minister's plan, it is about presenting an alternative," Mr Liberman said.

The BBC's Matt Prodger in Jerusalem says Mr Liberman's proposal is an extreme alternative put forward by a right-winger alarmed by Mr Sharon's plan.

However, he adds that it is unlikely to get much support from other ministers.




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