Sharon faces crucial vote on Gaza pullout

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The Independent Online

Ariel Sharon will today stake his premiership on pushing through his plan to withdraw all 7,500 Jewish settlers from Gaza at what could be the most important Israeli cabinet meeting since he came to office more than three and a half years ago.

Ariel Sharon will today stake his premiership on pushing through his plan to withdraw all 7,500 Jewish settlers from Gaza at what could be the most important Israeli cabinet meeting since he came to office more than three and a half years ago.

Freshly armed with an 11-10 majority in favour of the plan, the Israeli Prime Minister finally has the power to see it through, even if it means a dangerous split with ministerial opponents led by his main Likud rival, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr Netanyahu and his allies now have to choose between reaching an 11th-hour deal with Mr Sharon and triggering a major upheaval in Israeli politics, with the threatened Prime Minister ditching his own right wing and seeking to form a coalition with the opposition Labour Party.

Despite the big, if care-fully calculated, risk to his administration posed by his determination to disengage from Gaza, Mr Sharon has regained the political initiative over his opponents by sacking two extreme right ministers in his coalition, the National Union's Avigdor Lieberman and Benny Elon.

In a twist that is bizarre even by the colourful standards of Israeli politics Mr Elon, the tourism minister, has so far avoided receiving his letter of dismissal from Mr Sharon by going into hiding - almost certainly in the Gaza settlement of Netzarim. He was also fired in a telephone call from the Prime Minister on Friday morning, but claimed in a radio interview from an undeclared location that he could not be sure whether it was Mr Sharon speaking to him or Ely Yatzpan, Israel's leading stand-up comedian and impersonator.

Officials have said Mr Elon will be banned from attending today's meeting. But even if his ruse were to delay the vote it can hardly do so permanently. While Mr Elon has been revelling in his new role as a political and media anti-hero, the Labour Knesset member Yacov Herzog said yesterday that his behaviour was "childish" and undermined the Israeli public's faith in democracy.

Fresh negotiations were under way last night to find a version of the plan behind which the Likud cabinet dissidents could yet unite. The immigration minister, Tzipi Livni, who has been seeking to broker an agreement between the two factions, said yesterday that she still thought "there is a chance to reach a compromise deal" before today's meeting.

She said the discussions were around the dissidents' demand that money should continue to be spent on development in those settlements earmarked for dismantling.

Tommy Lapid, the justice minister and leader of the aggressively secular party Shinui, said yesterday after meeting Mr Netanyahu on Friday that he believed Mr Sharon's plan would pass the cabinet vote.

The finance minister and former prime minister was serious about finding a way of solving the Likud split, according to Mr Lipid, who said: "Netanyahu understands that he won't be able to be prime minister after dismissing another Likud premier."

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