Cabinet farce after Sharon sacks pair to secure Gaza vote

Ariel Sharon carried out his threat to sack two far-right ministers yesterday, triggering a mood of political crisis that at times bordered on farce.

Ariel Sharon carried out his threat to sack two far-right ministers yesterday, triggering a mood of political crisis that at times bordered on farce.

The Israeli Prime Minister sent dismissal letters to two ministers in the extreme right National Union, one of the parties in his coalition, to guarantee a majority for his Gaza disengagement plan in the cabinet, which meets tomorrow.

But Mr Sharon's gamble, which could yet put his administration at risk, at least as a majority government, ran into difficulty when one of the two dissident ministers, Benny Elon, responsible for tourism, went into hiding to avoid the letter of dismissal reaching him. "I have not received the letter," Mr Elon said in an interview with Israel Radio from a secret location. "I am trying to do everything in order that there is no majority for the plan on Sunday."

Mr Sharon's office was confident last night that the move would guarantee the Prime Minister a cabinet majority for his plan for a staged withdrawal of all 7,500 Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip whether or not fresh attempts to resolve the deep split over the plan within his ruling Likud party bear fruit. When neither National Union minister turned up to see Mr Sharon as summoned for 9am, Avigdor Lieberman, in charge of transport, was tracked toa gym and handed his dismissal letter.

Mr Sharon sacked the two ministers after attempts by his ministerial ally Tzipi Livni to broker a compromise with Likud opponents of the plan, led by Mr Sharon's chief rival Binyamin Netanyahu, started to falter late on Thursday - leaving the Prime Minister with the likelihood of being two votes short of a majority in the cabinet.

The Likud opponents have been seeking a veto on every one of the withdrawal plan's four stages and wantcontinued development money to be spent on the settlements earmarked for elimination. The absence from the vote of the two National Union ministers, hard line supporters of the idea that Israel has the right to claim the whole of the West Bank and Gaza, will turn a 12-11 majority against Mr Sharon's plan, into an 11-10 majority in favour.

There were signs that the National Religious Party, another far-right wing coalition partner, was split on whether to walk out in protest at the sackings. If it does it could leave Mr Sharon running a minority government, probably dependent on Labour votes. This would be all the more fragile if a last-minute deal is not reached with Mr Netanyahu. Mr Sharon was given a fresh boost in a poll published yesterday in Ha'aretz, which showed that 46 per cent of voters accept that Mr Netanyahu is motivated by personal interests in opposing the plan, compared with 24 per cent that believe the Finance Minister is concerned to implement the wishes of party members in last month's Likud referendum.

In interviews with Israeli newspapers on Thursday after talks with the Likud dissidents ended without result, Mr Sharon was particularly scathing about the idea that money should be spent on the Gaza settlements. "I don't think we should invest money in hopeless places," he told Ma'ariv. "This is the most important and crucial issue for the Americans too. They say this is the only thing that proves Israel is indeed moving forward and intending to carry out the plan".

Israel Radio quoted a Sharon aide as saying that they would not be "sending out detectives" to look for Mr Elon and that he would not be allowed to attend or vote at tomorrow's meeting. Under Israeli law a cabinet minister's dismissal must be ordered 48 hours before it takes effect. Government sources suggested that the Prime Minister had the legal right to bar Mr Elon from the meeting even if the letter had not been delivered.

Mr Elon, who was told by the Prime Minister on the telephone that he was fired, said the conversation was not enough to secure his dismissal. "I am not sure if it is him or Yatzpan," he added, referring to a popular entertainer, well known for his impersonations.

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