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Israeli Ministers Criticize Peace Plan

Members of two small, hard-line groups voice opposition. Sharon also faces resistance from his party as he prepares to put proposal to a vote.

May 25, 2003|Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — A day after pledging to support a U.S.-backed Middle East peace plan, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Saturday faced growing resistance to the initiative from Cabinet ministers and even prominent members of his Likud Party.

Sharon announced Friday that he was "prepared to accept the steps" laid out in the proposal, which calls for a series of reciprocal actions leading to a comprehensive peace settlement and Palestinian statehood within three years.

The statement, issued shortly before the official close of business Friday for the Jewish Sabbath, followed assurances from the Bush administration that the U.S. would address Israel's "real concerns" as the process moves forward.

The Israeli leader is expected to present the plan, known as the "road map," to his Cabinet for discussions and a vote that could come as early as today, officials said. But there were growing indications Saturday that he may face more significant opposition than previously thought.

Within Sharon's 23-member Cabinet, the strongest criticism is expected to come from the ministers of two small parties that support the Jewish settler movement and adamantly oppose the creation of a Palestinian state.

Yuri Stern, leader of the hard-line National Union Party, said Saturday that his faction would vote against the plan. "The program goes against the essential strategic interests of Israel," Stern told Israel Radio.

Housing Minister Effi Eitam, leader of the National Religious Party, whose base lies with the settlers living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, also has announced his opposition.

But Sharon also must sway what appears an increasingly sizable -- and skeptical -- contingent of his own party, by far the largest faction within the four-party coalition.

Gideon Saar, a senior Likud lawmaker and former Cabinet secretary, told Israel Radio on Saturday that the proposal was "the most dangerous Middle East plan ever presented."

"When a government in Israel, certainly one headed by the Likud, accepts obligations included in this plan, this will be a precedent," Saar said, according to Israel Radio. "We will inflict grave damage on ourselves if we accept this plan."

Another prominent Likud legislator, Yuval Steinitz, said in an interview Saturday that he opposes the proposal on substantive and procedural grounds, and has called on Sharon to delay the vote.

Sharon's decision to accept the plan and bring it to a vote was perilously fast, Steinitz said, and gives the government too little time to consider it.

"This road map is completely imbalanced and a distortion of Bush's original vision" for a two-state solution, said Steinitz, who chairs the Israeli parliament's influential foreign affairs and defense committee. He said he will vote against the initiative on multiple grounds, among them security concerns.

Aides said Sharon will meet with Likud ministers today to try to muster support for the peace proposal and convince party leaders that given the U.S. assurances, they should move forward without delay.

Late Saturday, Sharon's defense minister, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, announced that he would vote in favor of the plan, but other Likud ministers, including former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who holds the finance portfolio, have yet to announce a position.

Israeli political analyst Joseph Alpher predicted a tough battle in the Cabinet but said Sharon would probably prevail. Alpher described Saar's opposition as potentially significant because he is considered a close political ally of the prime minister, and said Sharon may choose to delay the vote to try to rally support.

In consultations with coalition members and aides Saturday, Sharon was also said to be searching for artful language that could help him finesse a vote. One such formula might enable the Cabinet to ratify "the steps to be taken in accordance with" the peace plan, but not the plan itself, Alpher said, paving the way for Sharon to gain support from current dissenters and, perhaps, satisfy the United States as well.

Within the coalition, the centrist Shinui party is expected to support the plan. And even if the hard-line factions bolt the government -- considered unlikely so early in the renewed peace process -- Sharon might be able to build a larger, more centrist coalition by inviting the Labor Party, originators of the Oslo peace process, to join.

The Palestinian Cabinet, meanwhile, said Saturday that it regarded "positively" both the U.S. efforts and Sharon's readiness to present the peace initiative to his government.

After meeting in Ramallah, the Cabinet issued a statement saying it looked forward to an expected summit in the first week of June between President Bush, Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. The statement also called on Israel to halt its "incursions, assassinations, arrests and settlement activities" to create an atmosphere conducive to peace talks.

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