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Sharon Asks Cabinet to OK Entire Gaza Pullout

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) will ask his Cabinet on Sunday to approve his proposal to withdraw from the entire Gaza Strip (search), officials said Friday, setting up a showdown with opponents that could bring down the government.

Sharon made his decision after attempts to reach a compromise with hard-line members of his coalition failed, the officials said on condition of anonymity. Hard-liners have threatened to quit the government if the plan passes.

The officials warned that the 23-member Cabinet was closely divided and approval on Sunday remained uncertain.

In new violence Friday, a car bomb exploded near an Israeli convoy on the Gaza-Egypt border, killing a Palestinian attacker and lightly wounding two soldiers, the army said.

Separately, a 25-year-old Palestinian man was shot and killed in the Gaza town of Deir el-Balah, hospital officials said. The circumstances of the shooting were unclear, but witnesses said the man was near a Jewish settlement.

An Israeli military source said there were no reports of gunfire in the area.

Sharon has been trying to salvage the Gaza pullout plan since his Likud Party (search) rejected the proposal in a referendum early this month.

The original plan called for a complete withdrawal from Gaza, where 7,500 Jewish settlers live among 1.3 million Palestinians, and the evacuation of four isolated settlements in the West Bank.

After the referendum setback, Sharon called for a revised scheme leading to a similar withdrawal in four stages instead of one.

Seeking to placate his opponents, Sharon on Thursday proposed that the Cabinet vote only on one portion of his plan — the evacuation of three small settlements in Gaza — and that a repeat vote be held several months from now.

But even that watered-down proposal ran into trouble.

Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sharon's biggest rival in the Likud, gave only tepid support, and the pro-settlement National Religious Party threatened to pull out of the government if any settlements are uprooted.

"The prime minister's problem ... is that there is a concern that the coalition partners will leave even over this minimal evacuation," Vice Premier Ehud Olmert, a close confidant of Sharon, told Israel Radio early Friday.

An official in Sharon's office said the prime minister approached Netanyahu and other wavering ministers in hopes of reaching a compromise.

"They refused to compromise, so we are returning to the full plan," the official said.

Sharon's office announced Friday that ministers had received copies of the proposal, an exchange of letters between Sharon and President Bush regarding the plan and details on technical preparations for the withdrawal. Bush endorsed the plan during a White House meeting with Sharon last month.

Sharon, a former general and one of the great survivors of Israeli politics, now faces growing speculation about his political future.

Many Likud members strongly oppose any pullout, and settlers have demonstrated outside the homes of undecided ministers, urging them to reject it.

After Thursday's setbacks, Israeli newspapers said Sharon's days in office may be numbered.

"Sharon folds," said the lead headline in the Maariv daily.

But Friday's decision to seek the Cabinet vote showed that Sharon has not given up.

Hanan Crystal, Israel Radio's political commentator, said Sharon had taken an enormous gamble.

"He has no majority, period," Crystal said. "If they vote against him, this is the second slap in the face in a month and essentially shows he is a lame duck."

If Sharon loses, his options include dismissing opponents within the government and bringing in the opposition Labor Party.

"Sharon can use special means reserved for the prime minister at times of crisis," Olmert said without elaborating.

Labor supports a Gaza withdrawal, but party officials have said they would be reluctant to support a watered-down plan.

If Sharon wins, he risks losing hard-line members of his coalition. In that case, he might ask Labor to join his government.

Many commentators said new elections may be inevitable. Israel's next election is scheduled in 2007, but early elections would be called if Sharon resigns and a majority coalition cannot be formed in the current parliament.

Palestinians have been ambivalent about the proposal, demanding coordination with the Israelis over a withdrawal but welcoming, in principle, any Israeli evacuation from Palestinian areas.

When promoting his failed original plan, Sharon said there was no future for settlers in Gaza. He said settlements there must be sacrificed to assure the future of settlements in the West Bank, where more than 200,000 Jews live.

In Gaza on Friday, the army said a Palestinian attacker was killed in a car bomb explosion near the border with Egypt.

The car pulled up near a bus full of Israeli workers from the Rafah border crossing, and a militant got out of the car shooting at the bus, the army said.

As the gunman fired, the car exploded and killed the attacker, the army said. An army jeep accompanying the bus collided with the bus because of the explosion, slightly injuring two soldiers, the army said.

Also Friday, Israeli forces destroyed a house in the nearby Rafah refugee camp, residents said. Israel this week ended a weeklong offensive in the camp following the bombing of an Israeli army vehicle that killed five soldiers.

In the West Bank city of Nablus, troops arrested a senior member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search) militant group, the army and witnesses said. Palestinians identified the man as Aimad Akubi.