Two More Israeli Ministers Quit in Blow to Sharon

The senior members of the pro-settler National Religious Party (search) announced Tuesday they are resigning from the Cabinet, dealing a further blow to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's (search) weakening coalition in the wake of its approval of a Gaza withdrawal plan.

Housing Minister Effie Eitam and Yitzhak Levy, a deputy minister, told party colleagues of their decision to step down, NRP members said, and were to hand in their resignations by the end of the day.

The resignations appeared to have no immediate effect on Sharon's slim parliamentary majority. NRP officials said although the two were quitting their Cabinet posts, the party has not decided whether to leave the coalition.

Social and Welfare Minister Zevulun Orlev, a leader of a more moderate faction of the party, said he intended to stay in the government.

NRP lawmakers said the party would not decide whether to leave the government before a coalition meeting Monday.

"There are two things. There is the Cabinet and the coalition. They have resigned from the Cabinet but at least until Monday they are still in the coalition," legislator Nissan Slomiansky said.

Sharon's coalition holds 61 seats in the 120-seat parliament. Without the six-member National Religious Party, it would be down to 55 seats.

Even then, Sharon's government would not fall because the moderate Labor Party (search) has said it would provide him with a safety net in parliament and refuse to take part in votes of no confidence against him.

Labor remains divided on whether to join the government.

The resignations of Eitam, the party leader, and Levy came after the Cabinet's historic vote Sunday to pull out of Gaza by the end of 2005. Eitam and Levy said they refused to serve in a government that intends to pull down settlements, party officials said.

Before the vote, Sharon dismissed the hard-line National Union Party from his coalition, weakening his grip on power but ensuring his plan had a Cabinet majority.

The Cabinet decision has roiled Israel's political landscape and could lead to new political alliances, or even elections, in the coming months.

The government survived two no-confidence motions in parliament Monday night. NRP legislators were absent from the floor during the vote and Labor legislators abstained.

In Sunday's meeting, the Cabinet approved a Gaza withdrawal in principle, but in a nod to hard-liners decided that no settlements would be removed without another vote, expected to be held by March 1. Meanwhile, the government will lay the groundwork for the settlement removals.

Sharon's "disengagement plan," includes the removal of all 21 Gaza settlements and four small West Bank settlements.

Meanwhile, Israeli bulldozers destroyed a one-acre parking lot Tuesday at a Palestinian university in a Jerusalem suburb to make way for Israel's West Bank separation barrier, a spokesman for the university said.

Al-Quds University spokesman Dimitri Diliani said the action violated an understanding between the university and the Israeli Ministry of Defense.

A spokeswoman for the ministry said the destruction of the lot was carried out in accordance with a map agreed on between the sides.

The army also closed the offices of three Palestinian organizations it said were used to funnel money to militant groups in the West Bank. The army said it shut offices in Ramallah, Tulkarem and Nablus affiliated with Islamic Jihad (search), Hamas (search) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (search).