- The Washington Times - Monday, May 13, 2002

JERUSALEM Israel's hard-line Likud Party defied its leader, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, last night and resolved that it would never accept a Palestinian state.
The Likud Party voted during a raucous conference hours after army reservists were sent home as Israel put off a planned assault against militants in the Gaza Strip, and Christians in Bethlehem celebrated their first Mass in the Church of the Nativity, scrubbed of the filth of 39 days behind barricades, in six weeks.
Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said in a television interview yesterday that the Gaza strike had been postponed to give the peace process a chance.
But the Likud Central Committee signaled it had given up any hope of a negotiated peace by rebuffing Mr. Sharon's plea to delay the vote. The committee said that any agreement to accept a Palestinian state "is dangerous to the state of Israel and will only intensify the pressures on us."
Its resolution categorically rejected the creation of a Palestinian state "west of the Jordan river."
The language, a forceful renewal of a long-standing plank in the party platform, was sponsored by members loyal to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is likely to challenge Mr. Sharon in the next party election.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said the vote "unmasked many things. This just shows that the war being waged by Israel against the Palestinians is not a war against what they call terror, it's really their war to maintain the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza."
He told the Associated Press that the vote was "a real slap in the face" for President Bush, who has spoken in favor of setting up a Palestinian state. But in Washington, the Bush administration studied the development and had no immediate response.
The 2,600-member Central Committee is the organ that chooses party candidates, and the vote last night is seen in many quarters as strengthening Mr. Netanyahu's bid to return to power in 2004.
Mr. Sharon, who is hugely popular with Israeli voters in the wake of the monthlong Operation Defensive Shield in West Bank, has in recent months spoken about a Palestinian state but with obvious reluctance. "Peace is possible," said Mr. Sharon, laying down parameters for the recognition of such a state.
"There are two basic conditions that have to be achieved," he said last night in a passionate speech telecast live in Israel. "One, a complete end to terrorism, violence and incitement. And two, the Palestinian Authority has to undergo basic reform in all areas: economic, social, the legal system and within society. We cannot make peace with a dictatorial corrupt regime."
The hard-line members of Israel's fragile coalition government believe that no Palestinian government can assure Israel's security, and they reject negotiations toward a peace settlement they do not trust. They are infuriated that Mr. Sharon yielded to U.S. pressure to release Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat from his Ramallah imprisonment.
Mr. Arafat yesterday said he was still supporting peace with Israel.
"We hope we will have this Palestinian state, side by side with Israeli Jewish state," he told Wolf Blitzer on CNN yesterday.
Mr. Arafat recalled that "when I was a small boy I used to play with Jewish boys in their area" of Jerusalem. "We called them 'our cousins.'"
He blamed the 19 months of Arab-Israeli violence on Mr. Sharon for visiting the Temple Mount, or Haram al Sharif, in Jerusalem, setting off Arab riots.
Mr. Arafat said he did not know who planned the suicide bombings in Netanya at a Passover seder, and in Jerusalem and Rishon Letzion in recent weeks.
Asked if he would unify his half-dozen security forces as requested by Israel and President Bush, Mr. Arafat said that would require replacing Jordanian and Egyptian legal systems with a Palestinian one.
And he voiced strong approval of Mr. Bush for strong action in Afghanistan and for calling for a Palestinian state in the United Nations. "I give my thanks from my heart" for being the first U.S. president to call for a Palestinian state, Mr. Arafat said.
Mr. Netanyahu, who has the support of the Likud leadership, attacked Mr. Sharon's failure to exile Mr. Arafat, whom he referred to as "the engine that runs terror."
Mr. Sharon criticized the "naivete" of previous Israeli governments for making agreements with Mr. Arafat. He noted, in one of several jabs at Mr. Netanyahu, that he never shook Mr. Arafat's hand.
Likud observers said Mr. Sharon might have prevailed in postponing the anti-Palestinian plank if his incursion into the Gaza Strip had taken place. Israeli tanks had been massing on the Gaza border, and reservists had been called up in what was anticipated to be a continuation of Operation Defensive Shield, after an unnamed suicide bomber killed 16 in a pool hall in Tel Aviv on Tuesday. Asked about the postponement of the Gaza incursion, Mr. Ben-Eliezer told CNN: "We are ready to give any chance to the peace process."
Diplomats here said the United States and other foreign nations had pressured the government to postpone the military action in the densely populated Gaza Strip and focus instead on a "diplomatic" solution.
Key Arab leaders held a summit in an Egyptian seaside resort this weekend to repeat their support for the land-for-peace proposal accepted at the Arab League Summit in March.
Syrian President Bashar Assad and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal joined Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Sharm el Sheik to renounce any incursion into Gaza, saying that it would only spur more violence from both sides.

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