Prime Minister Shimon Peres pledged today to do all he can to prevent his shaky coalition government from collapsing but did not retract his threat to fire Cabinet member Ariel Sharon for attacking his peace overtures toward Jordan.
Peres, clearly hardening his position, said he was willing to give the controversial former defense minister and war hero "a few hours" or even "half a day" to respond.
There was no immediate response from Sharon, 57, the trade and industry minister who previously was forced out as defense minister in 1983 after the massacre of an estimated 700 Palestinians at refugee camps in Lebanon.
Apologized for Tone
Sharon apologized for the tone but not the substance of his critical remarks, made Monday during an address in Haifa, but Peres was not satisfied.
Peres informed the Cabinet on Wednesday night that he was going to fire Sharon but stopped short of handing him a formal letter of dismissal that would have taken effect in 48 hours.
Interior Minister Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz of the small ultra-orthodox Shas Party, which has tried to negotiate a compromise, said Sharon was willing "to move a few steps" toward Peres but could not be made to "walk on all fours."
In a ringing address to his Labor Party colleagues in Tel Aviv today, Peres laid down three options for resolving the building crisis: either Sharon apologizes, Sharon resigns or Peres brings down the government.
'No Middle Ground'
"I am not prepared to leave the issue in doubt. Either it is clear to Sharon or not clear to him that the prime minister spoke the truth. If there is any doubt, we cannot sit in one government," Peres said. "Either he resigns or he accepts the will of the majority. There is no middle ground.
"At this stage I insist on two essential things: that the member of the Cabinet who made these statements in public, all six of these points, and in language unknown in any democratic government, relate (to them) specifically before the nation, point by point, and leave no doubt as to a single one of them."
"Otherwise I will go where I have to and draw conclusions," Peres said, using an Israeli expression for submitting the government's resignation to President Chaim Herzog.