- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 3, 2004

From combined dispatches

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday appeared ready to sack two hard-line Cabinet ministers after talks over a compromise on his U.S.-backed Gaza pullout plan bogged down, political sources said.

Mr. Sharon has summoned ministers from the National Union party, a small coalition partner in the 23-member Cabinet, for a meeting this morning, at which officials in his Likud Party expect him to dismiss the hard-liners, the sources said.

The dismissals could give Mr. Sharon a narrow majority needed in a Cabinet vote Sunday to pass his plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip by evacuating its 7,500 Jewish settlers living in 21 enclaves cloistered from 1.3 million Palestinians.

Tourism Minister Benny Elon, a staunch opponent of the plan and one of those called in by Mr. Sharon, accused the prime minister of trying “to create an artificial majority” and told reporters that he would comment further “only if the threat is carried out.”

The political crisis threatens to bring down Mr. Sharon’s government.

Talks over a compromise to rescue the coalition appeared to bog down late yesterday over hard-liners’ demands for settlements in Gaza to continue to receive state funding for construction even after the disengagement plan is approved, the sources said.

The dispute pitted Mr. Sharon against his main rival, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and other hard-liners over his plan to pull out of some of the territory Israel had captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Under Mr. Sharon’s four-stage proposal, all Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four of 120 enclaves in the West Bank would be evacuated by the end of next year.

The United States had pressed for implementation of Mr. Sharon’s full plan, instead of a watered-down version backed by Mr. Netanyahu.

Polls show a strong majority of Israelis willing to part with Gaza’s hard-to-defend settlements. But Likud members voted down the idea.

In a related development, Egypt has given Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a June 15 deadline to overhaul his security forces and fire corrupt commanders in preparation for the Gaza withdrawal.

Some of Mr. Arafat’s associates say he is determined to stall.

“Arafat … feels uncomfortable with the Egyptian ideas,” said Palestinian Cabinet Minister Qadoura Fares.

Control over security services is the pillar of Mr. Arafat’s authority. He has successfully resisted reforms for years, ignoring international pressure and the pleas of two Palestinian prime ministers.

But the beleaguered Palestinian leader may not be able to turn down the Egyptians, perhaps the last buffer between him and Israeli-imposed exile.

Egyptian officials have told Mr. Arafat that by the deadline they expect a written plan for melding 12 security services into three, with new commanders. Egypt has said that it will supervise the reforms and send more than 150 military advisers to Gaza to train Palestinian officers.

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