Sharon faces battle with Netanyahu over Gaza

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Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, yesterday fought to swing ministerial opponents behind his plan to disengage from Gaza in what is turning rapidly into a power struggle between himself and his main rival Binjamin Netanyahu.

Mr Sharon was set to trigger a week of political uncertainty and infighting by indicating he would postpone a vote because he lacks a majority for the plan. Although modified, his proposal to withdraw all 7,500 settlers from Gaza contained the basic elements rejected in a referendum among members of the ruling Likud party last month.

Facing a crisis for his authority, Mr Sharon projected himself as a statesman acting according to "a duty towards the entire [Israeli] public" whom, polls show, want full withdrawal from Gaza. In a thinly veiled sideswipe at the Prime Ministerial ambitions of Mr Netanyahu, the leading ministerial opponent of the plan, and his right-wing allies, Mr Sharon told the meeting: "I want to warn those members among us who want to exploit this hour of crisis for promoting some personal plan."

Mr Netanyahu arrived at yesterday's meeting as the leader of a 12-11 cabinet majority against the plan, retorting that "nobody in this room has a monopoly over the good of the state." Prominent opponents of the plan also include the Education Minister Limor Livnat, the Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and the Health Minister Danny Naveh.

The Finance Minister had been under strong US pressure to fall into line with the disengagement plan. The Israeli government has been warned that President George Bush would not take kindly to the plan being rejected when he had made a series of highly controversial concessions to Mr Sharon in April, in the belief it would secure approval for the plan. Mr Bush was criticised widely in the Arab world for agreeing that some of the biggest Israeli West Bank settlements would remain in Israeli hands in any final peace deal.

Mr Sharon went on yesterday to threaten ministerial sackings, a move which was assumed by ministers present to apply to Avigdor Lieberman and Benny Elon, members of Mr Sharon's coalition who belong to the hard-right National Union. The threat was taken as an indication that Mr Sharon was calculating that he can do without the National Union and his other right-wing coalition partner, the National Religious Party, and rely on Labour support in the Knesset to sustain him in office provided he sticks to his full plan for withdrawal from Gaza.

The robustness of Mr Shar-on's determination to seek approval for the plan in its entirety was tested last night, however, when Tommy Lapid, the Justice Minister and leader of the centrist partner in the coalition, Shinui, offered to broker a compromise between the Prime Minister and Mr Netanyahu. Mr Lapid suggested the Cabinet be asked initially to approve the withdrawal from three of Gaza's 21 settlements while Mr Sharon would say he intended to seek subsequent approval in stages from all of the settlements.

Israeli Air Force missiles killed two senior Hamas figures on a motorcycle and another suspected Hamas activist in the Gaza City neighbourhood of Zeitun early yesterday. Wa'al Nasser and Mohammed Zarzur were said by security sources to have organised suicide attacks.