Jerusalem was transformed into the setting for a real-life political "Where's Waldo?" yesterday as two right-wing cabinet ministers took evasive action in an effort to sabotage Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plans to dismiss them.
Mr. Sharon sent letters of dismissal to Avigdor Lieberman and Benny Elon of the right-wing National Union Party in an effort make sure his proposal to withdraw from the Gaza Strip would pass a cabinet vote planned for tomorrow. Both ministers are fiercely opposed to the plan.
Mr. Elon went into hiding to evade the letter of dismissal, which only takes effect 48 hours after it is delivered to him personally, and so complicates the cabinet vote.
"By the end of 2005 there will be no Jew in Gaza," Mr. Sharon told supporters this week. "I plan to uphold my commitments and pass the decision Sunday."
The dismissal of the two ministers would leave a cabinet majority in favour of Mr. Sharon's pullout plan, but puts his coalition government at risk of collapse.
He invited the two National Union ministers to his office at 9 a.m. yesterday to receive the dismissal letters, but they refused to attend. Cabinet Secretary Yisrael Maimon dispatched envoys to their homes, but they weren't there.
Messengers caught up with Mr. Lieberman as he exercised in a gym, but Mr. Elon, who lives in the West Bank settlement of Bet El near Ramallah, was in hiding last night.
Speaking to Israel Radio yesterday by telephone, Mr. Elon vowed to avoid being served with the letter and threatened to attend tomorrow's cabinet meeting and vote against the plan.
He described Mr. Sharon's moves as undemocratic and a step "that disgraces the government and efforts at maintaining a legitimate law-abiding government." He added that Mr. Sharon had informed him by phone that he was fired, but that wasn't good enough.
Mr. Sharon's decision to get tough with opponents within the cabinet of his coalition government followed a week of fruitless talks with his main Likud rival, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and other Likud hard-liners aimed at finding a compromise formula for the Gaza withdrawal plan.
Mr. Sharon wants to remove all 7,500 Israeli settlers and the hundreds of soldiers guarding them from the Gaza Strip by the end of next year and says he will push ahead although members of his own party voted against the plan last month.
"He feels confident enough to push this thing to the breaking point," said Mark Heller of the Jaffee Centre 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."
The Prime Minister has taken a major risk in firing the two ministers. Their departure from the cabinet leaves him with only 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. Either the firings or a cabinet vote in favour of the pullout plan could lead to the departure of the National Religious Party, which has six seats, causing the collapse of Mr. Sharon's coalition government.
But his determination to withdraw from Gaza could win the support of Shimon Peres's Labour opposition, which might even join a national unity government to get the job done.
A Gaza pullout would be hugely popular with the wider Israeli public. A poll published yesterday by Haaretz newspaper showed 60 per cent in favour and only 34 per cent opposed.
There is also talk of Mr. Sharon calling a general election and joining Mr. Peres in a new, broad-based centre party that could dominate Israeli politics and rescue the country from years of instability caused by dependence on tiny fringe parties.
After initial skepticism, Palestinian and Arab leaders are also warming to the pullout idea. Last week, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak signalled for the first time that Egypt would be willing to guarantee security in the Gaza Strip after an Israeli withdrawal. Until now, Mr. Mubarak has been careful not to get directly involved in the murky and dangerous world of Gaza's warring militias.
Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan said he would be pleased to take control of any area vacated by Israel. After initial doubts, Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qureia has adopted the same policy.