Likud ministers quit to hand Netanyahu moral victory

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Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud party, has won a trial of strength with the party's four ministers when they agreed to resign from the government.

A split had emerged within the party when Mr Netanyahu ordered the ministers to resign from the government led by acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The ministers - Silvan Shalom (Foreign), Limor Livnat (Education), Dan Naveh (Health) and Yisrael Katz (Agriculture) - had argued that the party would benefit in the forthcoming elections if they stayed in their government positions.

However, Mr Netanyahu took the view that the ministers should walk out to underline the differences between Likud and Kadima, the centre party Mr Olmert should inherit as leader from Ariel Sharon, as electoral campaigning resumes for the 28 March election.

Ms Livnat, Mr Naveh and Mr Katz all submitted their resignations on Wednesday, while Mr Shalom agreed to resign yesterday.

Mr Netanyahu's impatience to see his colleagues leave the government appears to have increased as a result of the expected Cabinet decision to allow voting in East Jerusalem for the Palestinian elections.

Although such voting was backed by Likud in last year's Palestinian presidential election, the party now sees any move to allow voting as a precursor to a division of Jerusalem as part of a final status deal with the Palestinians.

The Israeli government had threatened not to allow East Jerusalem Palestinians to vote on the grounds that Hamas was standing in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections. However, it is now expected to agree a compromise.

In a separate development, the Labour Knesset member Isaac Herzog has accused US President George Bush of promoting Mr Olmert by making a telephone call to him.

A statement from Mr Olmert's office said that, beside sending his good wishes for Mr Sharon, who is still critical but stable in the Hadassah hospital, Mr Bush had told Mr Olmert: "We know this is a difficult time for you, and whatever I can do to help I will."