Sharon may sack ministers to save Gaza plan

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The Independent Online

Ariel Sharon dramatically raised the stakes last night in his battle to withdraw 7,500 settlers from Gaza by summoning two dissident extreme-right ministerial opponents of his plan, with a view to sacking them this morning.

Ariel Sharon dramatically raised the stakes last night in his battle to withdraw 7,500 settlers from Gaza by summoning two dissident extreme-right ministerial opponents of his plan, with a view to sacking them this morning.

The bold move appeared to underline the Israeli Prime Minister's determination to push ahead with his disengagement plan, even if efforts to reach a compromise result in failure. The sackings could trigger a political crisis, leaving him dependent on the support of the Labour opposition.

Amid faltering efforts to secure unity, between himself and his supporters on the one hand, and with a group of Likud ministers led by his rival Binyamin Netanyahu on the other, Mr Sharon summoned Avigdor Lieberman and Benny Elon, two ministers in the National Union, one of his coalition partner parties, to meet him today.

Constitutionally, the departure of Israeli Cabinet ministers requires a 48-hour period to take effect. Mr Sharon has made it clear that he wants the cabinet to vote on his plan on Sunday. The departure of the two ministers would reverse the 12-11 majority against his plan.

At the same time, the sacking of Mr Elon and Mr Lieberman could put the other extreme right coalition partner, the National Religious Party, under pressure to walk out of the government in protest. The NRP publicly rejected attempts yesterday by the faction, led by Mr Netanyahu, to accept a compromise proposal designed to water down the disengagement plan and keep the government together.

The move indicates that Mr Sharon is not prepared to entertain a compromise which endangers the basic premises of his plan for the withdrawal of all 7,500 settlers, one that the US administration has made clear it now expects in return for the concessions it offered the Israeli premier last month.

Mr Lieberman said last night he was "busy", and would not be able to attend the meeting.

Mr Sharon for his part repeated that he expected the cabinet to pass his plans and added: "I plan to uphold my commitments and pass the decision this coming Sunday."

The sackings of the two National Union ministers will only become necessary if the dissidents led by Mr Netanyahu refuse to agree to Mr Sharon's terms, since if they do reach agreement with Mr Sharon he will automatically secure a majority.

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