Sunday 25 May 2003
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won cabinet approval Sunday for a U.S.-backed "road map" for peace in a breakthrough that formally committed Israel for the first time to the establishment of a Palestinian state.
The decision was accompanied by reaffirmation of Israeli reservations about the plan, which the United States has said would be addressed as it was being implemented, and rejection of any right for Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.
But the stage was set for initial steps to end 32 months of bloodshed and a possible Israeli-Palestinian summit attended by President Bush, who had pushed Sharon to accept the most ambitious Middle East peace plan in two years.
"We look forward to working with all parties in the region to realize the vision of peace laid out by President Bush in his June 24 speech," a White House spokesman said, referring to an address last year that set the framework for the road map.
"It's an important step forward."
Sharon overcame opposition by far-right cabinet ministers and members of his own rightist Likud party by a vote of 12-7 with four abstentions after a stormy six-hour debate.
"This is a positive thing," Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr told Dubai-based Al Arabiya television.
"But we believe that for there to be an effective implementation of the road map, then Israel must help create a conducive environment by freeing detainees, halting settlements and military raids and closures."
In a separate vote of 16-1, the cabinet rejected any influx of Palestinian refugees into what is now the Jewish state, a proviso likely to be a bump on any road to peace.
The road map does not refer to a specific Palestinian "right of return" but calls instead for a "fair and realistic solution to the refugee issue" in the proposal's final phase.
PALESTINIAN EMBRACE ROAD MAP
The Palestinians, who began an uprising in September 2000, have embraced the road map and its call for a state by 2005.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said Israeli approval would be followed by talks Monday between Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Sharon. There was no Israeli confirmation.
The plan's initial steps include an end to violence, an easing of Israel's grip on the West Bank and Gaza, the dismantling of Jewish settlement outposts erected since March 2001 and a freeze in settlement expansion.
"The time has come to divide this piece of land between us and the Palestinians," Sharon said in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily before the cabinet vote, without indicating how much occupied territory Israel would be willing to relinquish.
Some political commentators said Sharon was making a tactical move, banking on Abbas, a reformist with a weak power base, failing to carry out a mandated crackdown on militants.
The Bush administration has been pushing the proposal as the best chance yet to end daily Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed.
Israeli media reported that Sharon warned some ministers that rejection of the plan, drafted by the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations , would lead to crisis with Washington, Israel's closest ally.
Russia said it hoped Israeli reservations would not hamper its rapid implementation.
"We consider it of fundamental importance that the government of Israel, for the first time in history, has officially accepted Palestinians' right to create their own viable, sovereign state," a foreign ministry statement said.
Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, a leader of the Islamic militant group Hamas that has carried out dozens of suicide bombings in Israel, responded to the cabinet move by calling the road map "a conspiracy to liquidate the Palestinian cause and resistance."
Tel Aviv shares closed higher by about seven percent in very heavy volume after the government vote.