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By Corinne Heller
Jerusalem - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon cleared a major hurdle to a planned Gaza pullout, winning the support of a key opposition party for the state budget and avoiding an election that could have delayed the withdrawal.
In another boost for Sharon, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made clear on Sunday Washington was sticking to its support for Israel's intention to retain large West Bank settlement blocs in a final peace deal with the Palestinians.
Ending weeks of political uncertainty, Sharon wrapped up a deal on Saturday with Yosef Lapid, head of the opposition Shinui party, to support the budget. Defeat in a parliamentary vote later this week would have triggered a new election by law.
"The budget will pass now," Sharon was quoted as saying in the Haaretz newspaper after talks with Lapid at the prime minister's sprawling ranch in southern Israel.
Political commentators said the 264,5-billion shekel (about R360-billion) budget would now be approved easily despite opposition by rebels in Sharon's Likud party opposed to evacuating all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank.
"Shinui's concern about implementing the withdrawal and continuing the peace process was the decisive factor," Lapid said after meeting Sharon.
Lapid's secular party, which has 15 legislators in the 120-member parliament, had threatened to vote against the budget over allocations to religious institutions linked to an ultra-Orthodox coalition member.
Under the agreement, the government will grant 700-million shekels for Shinui priorities such as higher education and allowances for reserve soldiers.
For opponents of the pullout due to begin in July, rejecting the budget was a means of delaying the withdrawal after failing in parliamentary and cabinet ballots to stop the first evacuation of settlements on land Palestinians want for a state.
"We will continue our struggle against the disengagement with full force," leading Likud rebel Uzi Landau said after Sharon and Lapid sealed the deal.
"It doesn't surprise us that Lapid supports expelling Jews," said Gaza settler spokesman Eran Sternberg, an indirect reference to Shinui's secular platform that seeks to weaken the political power of Israel's ultra-Orthodox minority.
In comments likely to bolster Sharon against criticism by pro-settler rebels in his party, Rice reaffirmed a public commitment he received last April from US President George Bush over his plans to retain large West Bank settlement blocs.
"While we will not prejudice the outcome of final status negotiations, the changes on the ground, the existing major Israeli population centres will have to be taken into account in any final status negotiations," she told Israel Radio.
Rice said she was echoing Bush's pledge in a bid to clear up confusion after an Israeli newspaper quoted the US ambassador to Israel as saying no such commitment existed. The envoy, Dan Kurtzer, denied the report.
But Rice again voiced concern over Israeli plans to build 3 500 homes at a Jewish settlement near Jerusalem, a project Palestinians said would cut them off from parts of the city they hope to make the capital of a future state.
"We continue to discuss this with the Israeli government. Israel is our friend and we can discuss any concerns that we have, and we're continuing to do that," Rice said.