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Sharon Agrees to Seek Vote on Peace Plan

The surprise move by the Israeli leader breaks a diplomatic stalemate, raising the hope of negotiations with the Palestinians.

May 23, 2003|Megan K. Stack and Robin Wright | Times Staff Writers

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has reluctantly agreed to take a U.S.-backed peace plan to a Cabinet vote this weekend in exchange for an American promise to consider his government's numerous reservations about the plan, an Israeli official in Washington and a newspaper here reported Thursday.

The surprise decision, reported in Jerusalem's Haaretz newspaper and confirmed by the Israel official, breaks a tough diplomatic stalemate and raises the slight hope that peace talks could calm the 32-month-old Palestinian uprising.

Since the plan was unveiled last month, Israeli leaders had rejected the so-called "road map" and demanded about 15 wording changes. Meanwhile, annoyed Palestinian officials, who immediately embraced the proposal, refused to crack down on militants until Israel signed on to the plan.

The standoff was cracked this week by negotiations in Washington between Sharon's chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, and U.S. national security advisor Condoleezza Rice. The two drafted an agreement of "very creative wordsmith-ship," said the Israeli source in Washington, who requested anonymity.

That allows Israel to endorse the plan with the promise that the Jewish state's doubts remain open to discussion, the official said.

The Bush administration has sought to gain Israeli and Palestinian backing for the plan without getting sidetracked into debate over the specifics. "We don't want to spend time negotiating the road map," Rice said this month.

Bush met earlier this week with Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayyad at the White House, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said, but he gave no details of the meeting.

It was unclear whether Palestinian officials, who have insisted that Israel must accept the draft without revisions, would consider the compromise an acceptable show of good faith.

When Sharon met last weekend with his Palestinian counterpart, Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, both leaders spent hours trying to sway the other to his side. As the talks opened, Palestinian militants began a spate of five suicide bombings in 48 hours against Jewish targets, leading Sharon to cancel a trip this week to Washington. At that point, the prospects of any progress toward peace talks seemed slim.

The plan was unacceptable, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Gideon Meir said earlier this week, because it failed to rein in Palestinian militants.

"It does not ensure a fair and harsh supervisory system to make sure the Palestinians are really going to disarm," he said. If it were accepted, Meir said, "we'd have a terror state on our border."

But many Palestinians dismissed Israel's objections as a way of staving off difficult sacrifices. The phased plan, which calls for the immediate halt of attacks on Israel and the eventual creation of a Palestinian state, would force both sides to confront harsh sticking points right away.

Israel would be forced to stop building settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, take down some of its Jewish outposts and pull some soldiers out of territory claimed by the Palestinians.

The settlement issue hits to the core of the conflict: Many Israelis regard the settlers as brave pioneers who are "redeeming" biblical land that rightfully belongs to Jews.

Palestinians condemn the settlers as renegades who are stealing another people's territory.

The settlement question could prove politically difficult for Sharon, who cobbled together a fragile coalition this winter by joining ranks with the far-right religious parties -- lawmakers who are the most ardent settlement supporters. Analysts have predicted that if Sharon moves to dismantle the outposts, his government probably won't survive, forcing early elections.

Sharon began his term speaking of "painful concessions" in exchange for peace. The prime minister said Israel was ready to abandon some of its settlements. Last week, however, he told the Jerusalem Post that Jews should continue to live in the Palestinian territories.

"Sharon needs the trust of the extremists in Israel," said Palestinian analyst Manuel Hassassian. "He is the prime minister in an ambience of extremism, in a government that can't deliver peace."

Meanwhile, Palestinians are grappling with a crisis of their own. The peace plan would require the fledgling Palestinian government to shatter the networks of militants in Gaza and the West Bank.

The powerful organizations are regarded by many Palestinians as freedom fighters or Islamic armies; most Israelis see them as bands of ruthless terrorists.

Caught between foreign pressure and street-level danger, Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister, has spent the last week in Gaza, holding conciliatory talks with radical factions, security advisors and the families of Palestinian prisoners.

He tried in vain Thursday in a meeting with leaders of the radical group Hamas to persuade them to end attacks on Israel.

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