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Israel OKs U.S.-Backed Peace Plan

While the government votes to accept the creation of a Palestinian state, it sets conditions that are likely to complicate the process.

May 26, 2003|Megan K. Stack and Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writers

JERUSALEM — After a wrenching debate, Israel's Cabinet voted to endorse a U.S.-backed peace "road map" Sunday and for the first time accepted the eventual creation of a Palestinian state -- but tacked on a list of objections that could complicate the plan's implementation.

The vote approving the steps of the peace road map was a victory for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has been under intense foreign pressure to back the plan. But the emotional 12-7 decision, with four abstentions, came only after ministers attached a list of 14 reservations about the plan.

Nearly 32 months into the latest Palestinian uprising to end the Israeli occupation, the Cabinet endorsement was a sliver of hope in a woeful time. But the next step remained unclear. Within hours, amid Palestinian skepticism and Israeli dismay, a deep rift was showing.

"Palestinians and Israelis are sick and tired of hearing Palestinians and Israelis say words and words and words," said Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian negotiator who quit in frustration last week after more than a decade of failed peace talks. "We'll believe it when we see it on the ground."

Israel's endorsement of Palestinian statehood was remarkable given those who voted. Sharon's right-wing government includes nationalist and religious lawmakers who have said they will never accept the notion of a Palestinian state on territory they regard as God-given Jewish homeland.

Along with the protests of the far right, Sharon faced opposition from the ranks of his own Likud Party. Palestinians "murder our citizens in explosions, in shootings, and we want to reward them?" said Uzi Landau, a Likud minister who voted against the road map. "I believe we will pay a price for this."

During a heated debate before the vote, Likud ministers traded insults and accusations. They called each other "hallucinatory," "mentally ill" and "full of hate," Israel Radio reported.

Throughout the debate, Landau said, nobody spoke in favor of the road map -- only of the need to satisfy the Bush administration. Some of the ministers described the vote as a show of good faith in the Unites States, Israel's closest ally and the muscle behind the peace plan.

"Tonight there is no happy minister in the Israeli government, and I even think there is no minister who knows he or she made the right choice," said Public Security Minister Tzipi Livni, who voted for the road map. "So now we have hope but also a lot of fears."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Tara Rigler said, "We welcome this development in confirmation of Prime Minister Sharon's acceptance of the road map. We will continue to work closely with both sides throughout implementation of the road map."

However, Israel attached conditions to its approval, a move that gives the country room to continue to press its demands. First and foremost that Palestinians crack down on militant organizations before the steps of the road map are begun.

Under the plan, Israel would be required to withdraw from Palestinian areas reoccupied since the latest uprising began in September 2000, freeze construction of Jewish settlements and remove settlement outposts erected since March 2001. Palestinians would be required to disarm radical groups such as Hamas. Eventually the two sides would deal with the deeper issues such as refugees, the status of Jerusalem and details of the Palestinian state, which is to be established by 2005.

The action clears the way for Sharon, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and President Bush to meet. According to an Israeli media report, a summit could take place in Egypt in June.

But the next step by Palestinians and Israelis remains clouded.

Palestinian officials say they're ready to start working through the phases of the road map. That would begin, they said, with each side issuing a statement forswearing violence and recognizing the other state's right to exist.

"They both have to issue statements," said Erekat, who helped negotiate the peace plan. "We have the road map written in English; it's very clear."

"The two sides have to take simultaneous steps," Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib agreed.

But Israelis say the Palestinians are to make the first move. Asked about the interpretation of Palestinians like Erekat and Khatib, Sharon advisor Raanan Gissin said one word: "Nonsense."

In a direct clash with Palestinian expectations, Israeli officials continue to repeat the ultimatum they've used for weeks: That they won't dismantle outposts, won't pull their soldiers out of Palestinian territory -- won't make any sacrifices at all -- until Palestinians disarm and jail militants, stop incitement and close militia offices.

"We've done our part; now the Palestinians have to take action," Gissin said. "When we reach the road map, then both sides have to make painful concessions. But before we reach that phase there has to be a real fight against terror."

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