Again Reversing Course, Hardliner Elon Quits Government

Reversing course for the second time in a week, rightist cabinet minister Benny Elon joined far-right National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu party (NUYB) co-leader Avigdor Lieberman in allowing their resignations from the government to take effect as planned at noon Thursday, after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon failed to respond to a last-minute ultimatum.

Earlier on Thursday, Elon indicated that he would remain in the government after he said Sharon had agreed to end his practice of convening the "inner kitchen cabinet" - the centrist triumvirate of Sharon, Labor Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Labor Foreign Minister Shimon Peres - to make decisions on security and diplomatic issues.

Lieberman had made clear early Thursday that he would resign as planned.

Elon made the initial decision to suspend the resignation after an overnight recommendation by NUYB's Moledet faction. Prior to the Moledet meeting, Elon said Sharon had promised him that the "inner kitchen cabinet" would no longer be convened, and that henceforth, security and diplomatic issues would be discussed in the more hawkish-leaning "extended kitchen cabinet."

However, as the deadline approached Thursday, Elon said that Sharon had failed to meet a demand for a written or otherwise public declaration by Sharon reiterating the late-night promise.

Elon's party had threatened to resign from the government several times in the past, notably just before the December assassination of then-party chief and cabinet minister Rehavam Ze'evi, founder of Moledet.

Party leaders, stunned by Ze'evi's killing at the hands of radical Palestinian gunmen, decided to remain within the government at the time, but elected to quit this week in protest over two policy reversals of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Elon and Lieberman this week attacked Sharon for having rescinded his stipulation for "seven days of quiet" as a precondition for truce talks with the Palestinians, and for having lifted the order confining Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Rightists earlier Thursday blasted Elon's reported intention to remain in the government. Ze'evi's son Palmach, who has hinted that he intends to seek leadership of the rightist bloc in the future, denounced Elon as "betraying" the legacy of Moledet founder Rehavam Ze'evi.