JERUSALEM – Ariel Sharon (search) fired two hard-line government ministers Friday to pave the way for the approval of his Gaza withdrawal plan, but the two rebels tried to dodge the prime minister's couriers carrying the dismissal letters.
One minister, Avigdor Lieberman (search), was eventually tracked down at his gym, while the other, Benny Elon (search), remained elusive. The dismissals take effect 48 hours after they have been received — in person.
Sharon plans to hold a Cabinet vote on the Gaza withdrawal plan Sunday. However, if Elon cannot be tracked down before start of the Jewish Sabbath at sundown Friday, the vote might have to be delayed.
Sharon only has a Cabinet majority for the Gaza plan once the dismissal of Lieberman and Elon, leaders of the pro-settler National Union Party, takes effect.
The dismissals mark a turning point for Sharon. He is formally breaking with his erstwhile ultranationalist allies and moving to the center, even at the risk of triggering a rebellion in his Likud Party (search) and being drawn into early elections.
Sharon, once the main builder of Jewish settlements, is now staking his credibility on removing all 21 settlements from the Gaza Strip.
"He feels confident enough to push this thing to the breaking point," said Mark Heller of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. "It's an indication of Sharon's determination to push through and let the chips fall where they may."
Elon, speaking on Israel Radio, said he would do everything possible to evade Sharon's messengers. "I will make every effort to make it difficult for the prime minister," Elon said. "He has not yet given me the letter and my dismissal has not yet taken effect."
A Sharon aide said he was confident Elon would not remain a fugitive for long. "We'll find him even if he is dressed as a gypsy woman," the aide said.
Elon said Sharon told him by phone that he was fired. However, Elon said such notification was unacceptable. "I am not sure if it is him or Yatzpan," Elon said, referring to a popular comedian who imitates politicians.
Once the dismissals takes effect, Sharon would have an 11-10 majority in the Cabinet for a Gaza withdrawal.
However, even if the plan is approved by the Cabinet, the growing rift between Sharon and the hard-liners could bring down his government.
Another pro-settler faction, the National Religious Party, has threatened to quit if Sharon dismissed the National Union. NRP leader Effie Eitam described Sharon's concept of removing settlements as "a terrible, immoral, bitter thing."
Sharon indicated in Friday's Yediot Ahronot daily that he would invite the opposition Labor Party into his coalition government if other hard-liners quit.
But hawkish members of his own Likud party are also close to the point of rebellion, raising the prospect of early elections within months.
Sharon's proposal is a pullout from all of Gaza and four small settlements in the West Bank over four stages by the end of next year. Sharon has said there is no future for 7,500 Jewish settlers among 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza.
"To continue investing money in places where it is clear that we were not going to remain is absurd," Sharon was quoted as saying in Friday's Maariv daily. "To approve a program, to start building in places which we will evacuate in a few months, I can't accept such a thing."
Sharon wants to trade Gaza for the main settlement blocs in the West Bank, where most of the 230,000 Jewish settlers live.
President Bush endorsed the pullout plan at a meeting with Sharon in April, adding support for Israel in key elements of the dispute with the Palestinians, including backing for Israel's holding on to some settlement blocs in the West Bank.
"The disengagement plan gives Israel very significant advantages in the realm of strengthening its relations with the United States, and a failure to pass it would be a mishap for the country," Sharon told Yediot Ahronot.
In an interview on a French radio station Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called the plan "a good start" and appealed to the Palestinians to prepare for a pullout.
While Palestinians welcome Israel's proposed exit from Gaza, they insist it must be the start of a similar evacuation of the West Bank. Palestinians claim all of the West Bank and Gaza for a state.