Sharon determined to pass Gaza withdraw plan
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is determined to win Sunday a crucial Cabinet vote on his Gaza withdrawal plan, which could lead to the collapse of his fragile coalition.
Although Sharon has a one-vote majority in his Cabinet _ achieved by dismissing two extreme-right ministers on Friday _ key members of his Likud Party held last-minute talks Sunday to try to reach a compromise that would get their support as well.
Cabinet minister Benny Elon, one of the two fired ministers, disappeared Friday in an attempt to avoid receiving the dismissal notice and resurfaced in a Jerusalem hotel late Saturday. Dismissals go into effect 48 hours after official notice.
Even though Elon did not receive the written notice until late Saturday, Attorney General Meni Mazuz ruled the rebellious minister would not be allowed to vote after 3:30 p.m. (1230 GMT) Sunday because the notice had been faxed to his office on Friday.
Officials in Sharon's office said the vote would be held only after Elon's dismissal goes into effect. But Elon vowed Sunday to attend the Cabinet meeting and attempt to vote. If he succeeds Sharon _ who at the moment has an 11-10 majority _ would fail to pass the plan.
``I think I have to do everything to prevent this majority,'' Elon told Israel Radio, saying he would stop short of using physical violence against the prime minister's security men.
Sharon has been fighting diligently to pass his plan which calls for the evacuation of all Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements. According to the statement the Cabinet is expected to approve Sunday, the ministers would have to again vote before any evacuation takes place.
But Sharon's coalition has been dealt a harsh blow, and he may not have a majority when he seeks Cabinet approval for the actual evacuation _ a vote expected in about six months.
The plan also requires parliamentary approval. If the pro-settler National Religious Party bolts the government once the Cabinet approves the plan, Sharon will lose his parliamentary majority.
If Shimon Peres' Labor Party decides to join forces with Sharon, it would promise him a clear majority in the 120-member parliament. However, Israeli political analysts say the prime minister may not even have the 61 lawmakers he needs to get a new coalition approved in parliament.
Meanwhile, three Likud ministers _ Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Education Minister Limor Livnat _ held last-minute negotiations Sunday to find a compromise they say would allow them to support the plan.
If they succeed, Sharon would have a 14-7 majority in his Cabinet, which would help mend some of the shorn edges in his party, which rejected the pullout plan in a May 2 referendum.
The negotiations are focused on funding for building projects in Gaza settlements slated for evacuation. The three rebel ministers oppose freezing construction, while Sharon has said it would be ``absurd'' to continue funneling funds to the communities.
According to officials close to the negotiations, it appeared wording had been found to satisfy all the parties, but talks were expected to continue to the last minute.
Sharon, once a patron of Jewish settlements, is staking his credibility on the US-backed pullout plan, saying there is no future for Gaza settlements. About 7,500 Jewish settlers live among 1.3 million Palestinians in the coastal area.
In an April 14 White House meeting with President George W. Bush, Sharon received US recognition for Israel's hold on large West Bank settlement blocs in exchange for a Gaza withdrawal.
In addition, the United States, for the first time, rejected Palestinian demands that refugees be allowed to return to former homes in Israel following the establishment of a Palestinian state. Now, the United States is pressuring Sharon to implement the pullout.
Egypt, which borders Gaza, is also keen to see the Sharon program passed, in the hope it will bring quiet to the volatile area.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has promised to help train and reform Palestinian security forces and has sent a top envoy _ intelligence chief Omar Suleiman _ to shuttle between Israel and the Palestinians.
Palestinian officials said Saturday that Yasser Arafat sent a letter to Mubarak responding positively to Cairo's recent proposals for the future of Gaza, but refused to elaborate.
Egypt has given the Palestinian leader a June 15 deadline to overhaul his security forces and fire corrupt commanders in preparation for the withdrawal.
Control over security services is the pillar of Arafat's authority, and he has resisted reforms for years. But the beleaguered Arafat has come under intense Egyptian pressure to agree to the proposals.
Egypt also promised to coax Israel to lift its two-year siege on Arafat's headquarters and allow him free movement in the Palestinian territories.