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Sharon battles Cabinet on Gaza plan

Shake-up threatened to get majority vote

JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel 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 Sharon's government. Some Cabinet ministers tried to find a compromise that would rescue the US-endorsed plan and mend ties between Sharon and his main political rival, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The plan, or a compromise, might come up for a vote at the June 6 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," Lapid, head of the moderate Shinui Party, said.

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 reluctantly supported the plan, 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 said.

Arafat also offered to meet 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, saying he is implicated in Palestinian violence.

Sharon told the ministers yesterday that 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 condition of anonymity.

Israeli media said National Union ministers Avigdor Lieberman and Benny Elon would probably be fired, giving Sharon the majority he needs. Currently, 12 ministers oppose the withdrawal and 11 favor it.

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 media reported that the Bush administration is urging Sharon to stick to the full plan.

Israel's ambassador in Washington, Daniel Ayalon, said yesterday that Sharon is determined to go ahead with the plan. ''There is absolutely no pressure from the United States whatsoever," Ayalon said.

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

Sharon's top aide, Dov Weisglass, was heading to Washington later yesterday, an official in the prime minister's office said.

In the Gaza Strip, some 7,500 Jewish settlers live among 1.3 million Palestinians, controlling one-third of the crowded coastal territory.

Sharon has said that withdrawing from Gaza would boost Israel's security and help it hold on to chunks of the West Bank in a final peace deal.

Effie Eitam, head of the prosettler National Religious Party, accused Sharon of attempting to form an ''artificial majority," and said his party would quit if Sharon fired ministers.

Without the two parties, Sharon's coalition no longer would have a majority in the 120-member Parliament. A shake-up could open the door to a coalition with the moderate opposition Labor party but also could trigger a rebellion against Sharon in Likud, which already is in turmoil over the Gaza plan.

In Gaza, meanwhile, thousands of Palestinians attended funerals for two Hamas militants killed early yesterday, calling for revenge. Wael Nassar, 38, a top Hamas commander, his assistant, Mohammed Sarsour, 31, and a bystander were killed in an Israeli airstrike.

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