After threatening to dismiss rebellious ministers opposed to the plan endorsed by Washington but rejected by his own Likud party on Sunday, Sharon adjourned the meeting until next week without taking any action or vote.
   
Justice Minister Yosef Lapid of the centrist Shinui party presented a compromise proposal aimed at settling differences between Sharon and his strongest political rival, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposes the plan.
   
Sharon had intended to ask the Cabinet to approve the evacuation of all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four of the 120 in the West Bank, but Israeli media reports said he lacked a majority.
   
Lapid told Israel Radio that under his compromise formula, the cabinet would vote on the removal - in principle - of only three Gaza settlements and "note" Sharon's original plan.
   
"I think that the gaps are neither very wide nor substantial," Lapid said. "I don't see why we cannot bridge the differences, even if there are personal rivalries." 
   
Elusive majority

Earlier, the Israeli PM had threatened to fire rebellious cabinet ministers - a sign he still had no majority in the 23-member forum for unilateral "disengagement" from occupied Gaza. 

Netanyahu has led the fight
against Sharon's plan
 

Israeli media said 11 ministers - six from Likud and five from the centrist Shinui party - were in favour of the plan and 12 - eight from Likud, two from the National Religious Party and two from the ultra-rightist National Union - were opposed. 

Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has led the resistance in the right-wing Likud party and in the cabinet to the proposal to remove Gaza settlers by the end of 2005. Likud members rejected the plan in a 2 May referendum. 

"He [Sharo] is looking into the possibility of sacking two ministers from the National Union and even ministers from Likud, including Netanyahu," said a source close to Sharon. 

Sharon says there is no more strategic or economic value in preserving 21 tiny Gaza enclaves with 7500 settlers ringed by 1.3 million Palestinians and prone to constant attacks. 

Critics of a unilateral withdrawal, which Sharon changed from a one-step to a four-stage pullout after losing the Likud vote, say quitting Gaza and four small West Bank settlements would only embolden Palestinian resistance fighters. Sharon's plan is backed both by most Israelis in opinion polls and by the United States.

Looming turmoil

"I don't believe that the answer to terror and to terrorism is to show them that they have ... (uprooted) Jews," Tourism Minister Benny Elon of the National Union party told reporters. 

"If the government will decide to uproot settlements ... I cannot stay in the government because of my commitment to my constituency, my platform and to my faith"
Benny Elon,
Tourism Minister

Senior political sources said a cabinet vote would be held by 6 June  at the latest. "The plan will enable us to preserve national and security interests and extract Israel from the dangerous diplomatic deadlock," Sharon said in broadcast remarks at the meeting. 

Political turmoil looms whichever way the cabinet votes. If Sharon won, nationalist party allies would probably bolt the coalition, bringing it down and precipitating early elections or a Netanyahu attempt to replace Sharon with the support of hardliners dominating Likud's parliamentary faction. 

"If the government will decide to uproot settlements ... I cannot stay in the government because of my commitment to my constituency, my platform and to my faith," Elon said. 

If he lost, Sharon, who first took office in 2001, could reshape his cabinet or go to elections - in each case inviting the centre-left Labour party into a "unity" bloc to carry out territorial withdrawals. 

Uphill political battle

Israeli analysts say they have little reason to be optimistic over the plan. Even if it does get a majority vote, implementing it without protest from the settlers is a separate challenge in and of itself.

Jewish settlers are a challenge
to the proposed Gaza pullout

"Sharon is in trouble," said Hebrew University Political Science professor Ira Sharkansky.   

"Even if he passes something close or far from his original proposal, he's still far from implementation. Imagine the commotion the settlers and their supporters can mount," Sharkansky told Aljazeera.net 

"The days of this government are numbered one way or another, whether it's passed or not," concurred Israeli political analyst Yossi Alpher. 

Alpher says the plan is Sharon's attempt to avoid widening the political vacuum between the Israelis and Palestinians that he helped create.  

"Otherwise it will be filled by more demanding pressures for greater territorial concessions," said Alpher.  

Mixed reaction

Some Palestinians have welcomed the prospect of Israeli withdrawal from land occupied in the 1967 Middle East war but have called for talks to coordinate any pullout. 

"Even if they withdraw from all of the Gaza Strip as they say, the sea, the air, and the borders will remain in their control ... Gaza will remain under siege from all sides"

Usama al-Kurd,
Director of the Islamic Benevolence Society

"We will fully be responsible for the Gaza Strip or any place where the Israelis leave from. I am talking about security responsibility, economic responsibility ... educational, health responsibility," Palestinian cabinet minister Saib Uraiqat said. 

But other Palestinians are very critical of the plan. "This is merely a token withdrawal," said Usama al-Kurd, director of the Islamic Benevolence Society in the Gaza Strip. 

"Even if they withdraw from all of the Gaza Strip as they say, the sea, the air, and the borders will remain in their control.  It won't change the reality on the ground. Gaza will remain under siege from all sides."

Meanwhile, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Mahir denied there had been a change in the Egyptian position towards the issue of taking on security responsibilities in the Gaza Strip.

Mahir told Aljazeera that Egypt would not participate in maintaining security in the Gaza Strip, but was ready to train Palestinian cadres to undertake this mission.