- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 6, 2004

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is determined to win approval for his Gaza-withdrawal plan in a crucial Cabinet vote today, a government official said, brushing off efforts by hard-line ministers to water down the proposal.

In an apparent boost to Mr. Sharon, Attorney General Meni Mazuz ruled that Tourism Minister Benjamin Elon, fired by Mr. Sharon on Friday, could not take part in the Cabinet vote, Israel TV reported.

Mr. Elon, a staunch opponent of the withdrawal plan, went into hiding Friday to prevent the delivery of his dismissal letter and delay the Cabinet vote, but resurfaced yesterday in Jerusalem. A Justice Ministry spokesman declined to confirm the TV report.

Meanwhile, an estimated 2,000 people rallied last night in Jerusalem in favor of Mr. Sharon’s plan, marching from a central square to the prime minister’s residence about a mile away. They waved banners and chanted slogans backing Mr. Sharon’s efforts.

Mr. Sharon, once the main builder of Jewish settlements, is now staking his credibility on his plan to pull out from all 21 settlements in Gaza and four settlements in the West Bank by the end of 2005. He has said there is no future for Gaza settlements.

Mr. Sharon wants to trade Gaza, where 7,500 Jewish settlers live amid 1.3 million Palestinians, for the main settlement blocs in the West Bank, where most of the 230,000 Jewish settlers live.

While opinion polls show a solid majority of Israelis support the plan, he has struggled to get it approved by his government. He has been working to salvage the plan since his Likud Party rejected it in a nonbinding referendum on May 2.

On Friday, he fired two ministers from the hard-line National Union Party — Mr. Elon and Transportation Minister Avigdor Lieberman — in an effort to secure a slender Cabinet majority.

Ahead of the vote, Likud Immigration Minister Tzipi Livni raced to bridge the gap between Mr. Sharon and opponents of his plan within the Likud. Mr. Sharon, however, remained committed to passing it in its original form, a government official said.

“The prime minister is determined to bring his plan to approval,” the official said. “He will pass a resolution that will confirm the implementation of this plan.”

In today’s vote, Mr. Sharon will ask government ministers to approve plans to carry out the withdrawals in four stages, each conditional on a separate Cabinet vote, the official said.

Mrs. Livni’s compromise focused on efforts to end funding for building projects in Gaza settlements that are slated for evacuation. Three rebel Likud ministers — Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Education Minister Limor Livnat and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom — reportedly want funding to continue.

Mr. Sharon has said it’s “absurd” to continue the funding.

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