- The Washington Times - Friday, June 4, 2004

TEL AVIV — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday fired two hard-line ministers opposed to his Gaza Strip withdrawal plan in a dramatic move to ensure the initiative wins a Cabinet vote scheduled for this weekend.

But one of the two ministers, Tourism Minister Benjamin Elon, went into hiding to avoid the letter of dismissal and vowed to do all he could to defeat the plan.

The dismissal of Mr. Elon and Transportation Minister Avigdor Lieberman, both of the far-right National Union Party, may signal the first step in a major shake-up of Mr. Sharon’s government.

The coalition is deeply divided over the prime minister’s proposal to evacuate about 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, and the abrupt sacking of the ministers is likely to put pressure on other opponents to quit the government.

“The prime minister is determined to bring his plan to fruition,” said an official in the prime minister’s office who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They’re not offering an alternative plan and time is a commodity that’s in short supply.”

For much of the previous week, Mr. Sharon had sought a compromise with opponents from his own Likud Party — led by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — which suggested a watered down version of the plan to hold together the government.

But U.S. officials have said they expect Mr. Sharon to stick to the original plan. In remarks before a parliamentary committee on Wednesday, Mr. Sharon said by the end of 2005 there would be no more Jewish presence in the Gaza Strip.

As negotiations faltered Thursday, Mr. Sharon decided to summon Mr. Elon and Mr. Lieberman to his office yesterday morning to give them an ultimatum.

Dismissal notes were sent to the ministers after they failed to appear at Mr. Sharon’s office. They take effect tomorrow, when the Cabinet is expected to make a decision on leaving Gaza.

The dismissals trim the size of Mr. Sharon’s Cabinet to 21, and may give the prime minister a slim majority to pass the disengagement plan. Even if Mr. Sharon wins the vote, the move endangers the coalition ahead of a no-confidence vote in parliament scheduled for next week.

Mr. Elon, who was believed to be hiding in a Gaza settlement, said he was deliberately avoiding receiving the notice so he could take part in the vote before his discharge becomes official. Israeli law states that Cabinet dismissals take 48 hours to go into effect after a fired minister receives written notice from the prime minister.

“I’m doing everything I can so there won’t be a majority,” Mr. Elon told Israel Radio. “I’m doing everything so I won’t receive the letter.”

Mr. Lieberman reportedly accepted his letter at a gymnasium.

The move makes it difficult for other far-right members of the coalition to remain in the government. Shaul Yahalom, a member of the pro-settler National Religious Party, decried the dismissals as undemocratic and immoral.

Cabinet ministers from the Likud Party continued to work on a compromise yesterday in an effort to resolve the crisis before the dismissals take effect. The dispute over the Gaza withdrawal threatens a split within Mr. Sharon’s Likud Party, which rejected the plan in a referendum last month.

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