- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 30, 2004

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon tried to push forward his Gaza withdrawal plan during a tense seven-hour meeting of his divided Cabinet yesterday, threatening to fire recalcitrant ministers and reshuffle his government if he failed to obtain a majority.

The meeting ended without a vote, and there was growing uncertainty over the fate of Mr. Sharon’s government. Some Cabinet ministers tried to find a compromise that would rescue the U.S.-endorsed withdrawal plan and mend ties between Mr. Sharon and his main political rival, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The plan — or a compromise — might come up for a vote at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, but even that is uncertain, Justice Minister Yosef Lapid said.

“In any case, there is not at the moment a clear picture of where the things are going,” said Mr. Lapid, head of the moderate Shinui Party.

Mr. Sharon wants to withdraw Israeli soldiers and settlers from the entire Gaza Strip and evacuate four West Bank settlements. His hard-line Likud Party rejected the proposal in a May 2 referendum, enabling some ministers, who had supported the plan reluctantly, to shift sides.

In a rare interview with an Israeli TV station, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat gave conditional support to the Gaza pullout plan.

“When will it come? Will it be a complete withdrawal?” he asked.

Mr. Arafat also offered to meet Mr. Sharon and talk peace. “Why not? If there is a will for peace, it will overcome all other ideas,” he said.

Israel is boycotting the veteran Palestinian leader, charging that he is implicated in Palestinian violence.

Mr. Sharon told ministers yesterday he is determined to get his plan approved even if he has to “change the makeup of the government or take unprecedented political steps,” one participant said on the condition of anonymity.

Israeli news reports said two ministers from the hard-line National Union party could be the first to go, giving Mr. Sharon the majority he needs. Currently, 12 ministers oppose the withdrawal and 11 favor it.

Mr. Lapid, who supports a withdrawal, proposed holding a vote only on a small portion of the withdrawal plan in hopes of securing a Cabinet majority. However, Israeli journalists reported that the Bush administration is urging Mr. Sharon to stick to the full plan.

Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Daniel Ayalon, said yesterday that Mr. Sharon is determined to go ahead with the plan.

“There is absolutely no pressure from the United States whatsoever,” Mr. Ayalon said.

Mr. Sharon and some ministers argued yesterday over whether the United States would support a watered-down proposal, officials at the session said.

Reflecting concern about a U.S. reaction, Mr. Sharon’s top aide, Dov Weisglass, was heading to Washington last night, an official in the prime minister’s office said.

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