Israeli ministers quit over Bush plan for peace

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The Independent Online

Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, faced the first defections from his coalition government last night when two hardline ministers resigned in protest over a supposedly new American plan for reviving Middle East peace talks.

The ministers – from the far right – said their decision to quit was triggered by the withdrawal yesterday of Israeli troops from two Palestinian neighbourhoods in the divided and unstable West Bank city of Hebron. But they made clear that at the core of their decision was their opposition to a possible new peace initiative by President George Bush.

The hiatus came amid a wider political furore in Israel over the army's withdrawal, leaving under cover of darkness 10 days after dramatically reoccupying the same Hebron neighbourhoods. For the first time Israel's Defence Minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, openly opposed his armed forces chief-of-staff, Lieutenant General Shaul Mofaz, who had wanted his troops to stay to protect a small group of militant Jewish settlers in the Palestinian city.

The row – hastily patched up yesterday – was the strongest proof to date of a developing rift between the hardline Israeli military leadership and the comparatively moderate elements of Mr Sharon's government. The Hebron withdrawal was presented by Israeli officials as an attempt to ease relations with the Palestinians, but its effects were swiftly snuffed out by signs that the Israeli army had assassinated another Hamas militant, this time by exploding a device in a car in Nablus, a stronghold of Islamic militancy.

The killing of Ahmed Marshoud came only a day after Israel admitted assassinating a prominent Hamas leader, Abdel Rahman Hamad, also in the West Bank – damaging efforts by the US and its allies to calm the angry mood at street level among Muslims who are outraged by the US-led attacks on Afghanistan.

The ministers who announced their resignation yesterday were the most outspoken and extreme of the right-wing elements in Mr Sharon's "government of national unity" – Rehavam Ze'evi, the Tourism Minister, and Avigdor Lieberman, the National Infrastructure minister, leaders of the seven-member National Union-Yisrael Beitenu blocs.

Mr Lieberman – who is a settler living in occupied territories – opposes returning an inch of occupied land to the Palestinians. He made headlines before the February elections by saying Mr Sharon's new government would be willing to bomb Egypt. Mr Ze'evi, a former armed forces chief-of-staff, has supported "transfer" – a euphemism for pushing out the 3.3 million Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.

Their resignations have 48 hours to take effect, which means a last-minute change of heart is possible.

But there was no sign of this in the rhetoric spouting from Mr Lieberman, a former nightclub bouncer and emigré from the former Soviet Union. He said his first objective was to defeat Mr Bush's supposed new plan to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to intensive peace negotiations. "Today the holy challenge that Israel faces is how to foil the American initiative," he said. "The Americans have said clearly that the starting point would be the point at which the Camp David talks ended with [former prime minister Ehud] Barak."

He also singled out for criticism Shimon Peres, Israel's Foreign Minister. "Obviously, so long as Shimon Peres in the Foreign Ministry, with his international experience and standing, leading Israel's foreign policy, there is no possibility either to oppose or foil the American initiative," he said.

The departure of the far-right bloc's seven Knesset members will still leave Mr Sharon's coalition, anchored by Likud, Labour, and the ultra-Orthodox Shas, with a 76-seat majority in the 120-member parliament. But even if the ministers and their followers change their minds today, the episode – coupled with the government's now resolved row with the army – represents the Sharon administration's most turbulent period to date. This reflects Israel's general unease and fear of isolation triggered by Washington's wooing of the Muslim world, and especially by the rehabilitation of Yasser Arafat, who was in London yesterday visiting Tony Blair.