(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Netanyahu released a statement officially calling upon Likud ministers to quit the cabinet by Sunday.
"Netanyahu believes the Likud must present an alternative to Sharon's plans to continue with unilateral withdrawals that will endanger Israel," the statement read.
Health minister Dan Naveh accepted Netanyahu's decision. He said that he thought that the Likud should remain in the government, but because Netanyahu decided, the party should unify behind his decision and not act against it.
Likud central committee members loyal to foreign minister Silvan Shalom and education minister Limor Livnat, are trying to convene the committee to bypass Netanyahu's decision.
Shalom, who is second on the Likud list, said that Netanyahu would "bear the responsibility for his decision," meaning that if it causes the Likud to fall in support, Netanyahu would be blamed for it.
Netanyahu's statement followed a stormy Monday meeting with the Likud ministers at the Likud's Tel Aviv headquarters.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's associates said he was ready to appoint five new ministers on Tuesday, when the resignations of Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Education Minister Limor Livnat, Health Minister Dan Naveh and Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz will take effect.
Sharon is unsure whether to replace Shalom with Shimon Peres. Sharon's associates said the prime minister believes Peres is the best man for the job, but he does not want to create a precedent that would bind him should he form the next government.
Other appointments that appear set are Ya'acov Edri as health minister, Roni Bar-On as construction and housing minister, Ze'ev Boim as national infrastructure minister and Haim Ramon as environment and communications minister. Sharon intends to keep for himself the key Education and Interior portfolios and the Agriculture portfolio that he likes.
Sharon is unlikely to reappoint Dalia Itzik as a minister or to promote other MKs who have no chance of receiving a portfolio in the next government. He wanted to promote Minister-without-Portfolio Tzahi Hanegbi but the Attorney-General's Office will not allow him to hold a portfolio while he is being investigated for making illegal appointments.
Netanyahu decided that he wanted the ministers to quit as soon as possible, but because of Sharon's cardiac catheterization on Thursday, he decided to wait until next week. Netanyahu's bureau chief Yechiel Leiter had advised him to take the ministers out of the government immediately after his December 19 election, but Netanyahu did not listen to him.
"If you don't leave the government soon, I will lose my credibility, because I made a commitment to quit the government as soon as possible and start presenting an alternative," Netanyahu reportedly told the ministers in the closed-door meeting.
Shalom, Livnat and Naveh tried unsuccessfully to persuade Netanyahu to allow them to stay in the government. They said that Labor and Shinui ministers regretted quitting, and they even gave him a poll that found that most Likud voters want them to stay. Livnat's political adviser circulated a petition in the Likud central committee calling on Netanyahu to keep the ministers in the cabinet.
"The Likud has a mandate to serve in the government, and Kadima does not," Livnat said. "It would be absurd and unprecedented if we were to have a government made up exclusively of Kadima ministers, even though they only have 19 MKs."
Netanyahu and the ministers argued for two hours before the ministers caved in and decided to allow Netanyahu to decide on his own when they should quit. As of Tuesday, Netanyahu will become the opposition leader and he will be entitled to a Volvo, security guards, a staff of aides and regular briefings from Sharon.