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Sharon to Fire Ministers Who Oppose Withdrawal From Gaza

By Greg Myre

The New York Times -- JERUSALEM

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 Sharon said Thursday night.

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.

However, 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, Sharon summoned the two ministers, Avigdor Lieberman and Benyamin Elon, to the prime minister’s office on Friday morning, the aide said. The two are considered the most right-wing members of the Cabinet and have strongly opposed the Gaza pullout.

At last Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, Sharon threatened to fire ministers opposed to the Gaza withdrawal, though he did not mention names. But ever since, Lieberman, the transportation minister, and 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, Sharon’s ministers oppose his Gaza plan by a count of 12-11, according to political analysts. But if the two ministers are dismissed, Sharon could presumably eke out an 11-10 victory. He could also replace the ministers with supporters of his plan to further strengthen his majority.

Sharon’s withdrawal plan calls for Israel to evacuate all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza, along with 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. Sharon says he is acting unilaterally because he does not believe that Israel can negotiate a deal with the current Palestinian leadership, headed by Yasser Arafat.