Sharon sacks hardliners who stand in his wayFar-right ministers dismissed for opposing his plan to withdraw Israeli settlers from Gaza
Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, broke with the far-right parties that have kept him in power on Friday and sacked two hardline ministers in a dramatic attempt to win cabinet support for the removal of all Jewish settlers from the Gaza strip.
One of the ministers, Benny Elon, immediately went into hiding in one of the settlements in an attempt to evade the letter of dismissal - which only takes effect 48 hours after it is delivered to him personally - and so complicate the cabinet vote scheduled for tomorrow.
The sackings left the future of the government in the balance after other far-right ministers threatened to walk out of the ruling coalition. There were also warnings of a rebellion within Mr Sharon's Likud party.
The prime minister sacked Mr Elon and Avigdor Lieberman, both of the extremist National Union party, after a majority of his cabinet continued to reject his plan to dismantle all Jewish settlements in the Gaza strip and four smaller ones in the West Bank.
Mr Sharon has staked his premiership on the US-backed "disengagement" strategy to remove about 7,500 settlers from Gaza after a majority of Likud members rejected the plan in a party referendum last month.
Mr Lieberman told Israel radio he was proud to be sacked by a prime minister he accused of trying to create an "artificial majority" in the cabinet. "This is absurd. It only points to the weakness of the prime minister, to his inability to convince his ministers," he said. "He failed inside his party, he failed inside his government, and after all of the failures, he rolled all of his failures up in the National Union and fires them."
The dismissals will give Mr Sharon a majority of one in a cabinet vote on the Gaza withdrawal - if no ministers change their publicly stated positions before then.
But the sackings also jeopardised the ruling coalition after another pro-settler group, the National Religious party, threatened to leave the government. Its two cabinet ministers are at odds over when to walk out.
One of the two, the minister for Labour, Zevulun Orlev, wants the party to remain in the cabinet until the removal of the settlers begins.
But the NRP's chairman, the housing minister, Effi Eitam, says the party should quit once the cabinet approves the pullout plan, which he called "terrible, chilling, and immoral".
Mr Eitam told a settler website his party was not prepared to compromise.
"Compromise over what?" he asked. "The Torah? The land of Israel? We have another partner in these decisions, the master of the universe. We must show the master of the universe that we are willing to sacrifice our souls for the land of Israel and he will help us."
If the NRP walked out of the administration Mr Sharon would be dependent on the opposition Labour party for the survival of his government. Labour has promised a "safety net" in parliament to allow the administration to carry out the withdrawal plan, but is wavering over whether to join the cabinet.
The sackings came after negotiations between Mr Sharon and dissenting ministers from his own party, led by his arch-rival Binyamin Netanyahu, failed to reach a compromise.
Mr Sharon gave ground after the Likud referendum by agreeing to a cabinet vote at each of the four stages of the pullout. But Mr Netanyahu, supported by the foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, and the education minister, Limor Livnat, made more demands.
These included dropping mention in the cabinet vote of an intention to empty all the Gaza settlements, and the continued funding of settlement construction in Gaza.
The prime minister told Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper that both demands were unacceptable because the first would anger the Americans and the second would be a waste of money.
"There is no sense in continuing to invest funds in settlements that will be evacuated in any case," he said.
An aide to the three dissenting Likud ministers told reporters that the prime minister's stance would break up the party.
"Sharon is trying to divide the Likud, and prefers the left to it," he said. "He wants to pick the Labour party off the canvas in order to carry out far-reaching withdrawals contrary to the position of the Likud movement."