Sharon Is Expected to Fire 2 From Cabinet Before Gaza Vote

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 04-Jun-04 | Author: Greg Myre| Source: The New York Times

Avigdor Lieberman (L) and Israeli National Union ministers Benny Elon.

JERUSALEM, June 3 - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appeared set to fire two conservative cabinet ministers to create a narrow majority for himself when the remaining ministers vote on the plan to withdraw fully from the Gaza Strip, an aide to Mr. Sharon said Thursday night.

Mr. Sharon is expected to dismiss the two ministers, from the far-right National Union Party, on Friday morning, and the cabinet plans to vote on the withdrawal plan at a session on Sunday, according to the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But the firings are likely to create new headaches for the prime minister, whose right-wing coalition faces the possibility of a rapid collapse over the issue.

Late Thursday night, Mr. Sharon summoned the two ministers, Avigdor Lieberman and Benyamin Elon, to meet with him Friday morning in his office, the aide said. The two are considered the most right-wing members of the cabinet and have strongly opposed the Gaza pullout.

Mr. Lieberman said he already had plans and would not be able to see the prime minister, Israeli radio reported.

On Sunday, Mr. Sharon threatened to fire ministers opposed to the Gaza withdrawal, though he did not mention names. But ever since, Mr. Lieberman, the transportation minister, and Mr. Elon, the tourism minister, both of whom have been strident supporters of tough security measures against Palestinians, have been cited as the ministers most likely to go.

At present, Mr. Sharon's ministers oppose his Gaza plan by a count of 12 to 11, according to political analysts. But if the two ministers are dismissed, Mr. Sharon could presumably eke out an 11 to 10 victory. He could also replace the ministers with supporters of his plan to further strengthen his support.

Mr. Sharon's withdrawal plan calls for Israel to evacuate all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four small settlements in the West Bank by the end of 2005. Most Israeli soldiers would also leave Gaza, though Israel would continue, at least temporarily, to patrol a buffer zone along Gaza's border with Egypt.

Mr. Sharon says he is acting unilaterally because he does not believe that Israel can negotiate a deal with the current Palestinian leadership, headed by Yasir Arafat.

Mr. Sharon suffered a major setback when his conservative Likud party rejected the Gaza withdrawal plan last month, and the prime minister cannot afford a defeat in his own cabinet.

But if Mr. Sharon fires the ministers, it is likely to have wide-ranging repercussions, and any victories at the Sunday cabinet meeting could be short-lived.

Mr. Sharon's coalition now controls 68 of the 120 seats in Parliament, but his majority could quickly evaporate. The National Union Party holds seven seats, and its departure from the coalition is very likely if its two leaders are fired.

In addition, the National Religious Party, which has six parliamentary seats and is a leading backer of the Jewish settlers, says it will leave the coalition if the Gaza withdrawal is approved.

If those two parties depart, Mr. Sharon would have just 55 seats in Parliament and would need other coalition partners to recapture a majority of more than 60 seats. If he could not find them, his government would face collapse, and Israel could be looking at another round of elections.

Mr. Sharon has won the past two polls, in 2003 and 2001, by landslide margins. But as a longtime hawk who had pledged to end the Palestinian uprising with tough security measures, Mr. Sharon has struggled to persuade his right-wing supporters to back the Gaza withdrawal.

A strong majority of Israelis support the plan, according to multiple opinion surveys. But many hard-liners view the proposal as a "reward for terrorism" and say it will encourage further violence by the Palestinians.

Mr. Sharon, a leading supporter of settlement building for decades, says that if Israel does not act unilaterally, it will face increasing international pressure to make even greater concessions in the future. The prime minister believes that the Gaza pullout will bolster his efforts to strengthen Israeli control over the much larger settlements in the West Bank. There are about 7,500 settlers in Gaza and about 230,000 in the West Bank.

If Mr. Sharon wins cabinet approval, the plan is then expected to go to Parliament. With moderate and liberal parties supporting the Gaza withdrawal, it is considered likely to gain the backing of a majority of legislators.

The Palestinian leadership has said that an Israeli pullout would be welcomed, but that it should be coordinated with the Palestinians and linked to a broader peace effort.