- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 14, 2002

President Bush remained firm in his support of a Palestinian state yesterday, leaving Israel's Likud Party isolated abroad as well as at home by Sunday's vote opposing such a state.

"The president continues to believe that the best route to peace is through the creation of the state of Palestine and side-by-side security with Israel," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said yesterday.

Mr. Bush became the first U.S. president to publicly proclaim support for a Palestinian state in a U.N. address last year.

Mr. Bush's position yesterday drew a line between his administration and the most hawkish of Israel's political leaders, threatening to create tension between the allies if Likud prime-ministerial candidate Benjamin Netanyahu succeeds in his effort to oust Ariel Sharon.

Mr. Netanyahu sponsored a resolution adopted by Likud on Sunday that it would never accept a Palestinian state.

Mr. Sharon also drew a line between himself and the most hawkish members of his Likud Party by opposing the vote.

Mr. Sharon decided "to suffer a tactical loss in this committee, but to continue to be characterized as a sovereign, pragmatic diplomat," said political commentator Hanan Crystal. "This will help him among the wider public."

When the Likud Central Committee voted to oppose the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, it set itself at odds with mainstream Israeli public opinion.

Likud is 16 percent of the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, although it leads a coalition of hard-line parties ruling in concert with the left-of-center Labor Party.

In a public opinion poll published in the Ha'aretz newspaper yesterday, 54 percent of Israelis questioned said they favor an independent Palestinian state.

Even as the Likud voted against a Palestinian state on Sunday, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met with Mohammed Rashid, financial adviser to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, in Rome talks aimed at reviving the peace process.

And the Bush administration continued to work on proposals to reform the Palestinian Authority's security forces and end corruption.

A planned visit by CIA Director George J. Tenet to solidify any cease-fire and restart security cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians has been put on hold until the violence dies down.

But Ha'aretz reported that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell may return to the region in early June to prepare for the international conference on the Middle East he announced two weeks ago.

Mr. Powell said yesterday, on the way to a NATO meeting in Iceland, that he had spoken to Mr. Sharon and that the Israeli prime minister said his willingness to accept a Palestinian state remained firm, provided terrorism can be stopped.

"The prime minister and I discussed the decision made by the Likud committee yesterday, and of course he reaffirmed to me that he remains committed to moving forward to achieve that vision that I think most people have of a Palestinian state," Mr. Powell told reporters.

"I don't think it changes Prime Minister Sharon's basic thinking about this subject where he was inclined to move forward to a Palestinian state at some point in the future," Mr. Powell said.

A White House official said he doubted the Likud vote would have serious repercussions or create tension.

"Israel is a friend and an ally, and that will be the case no matter what happens," National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack said.

"The president clearly outlined that the goal of this pathway to peace is two states, Israel and a Palestinian state, side by side in peace and security. We are now charting our way down that pathway to peace," he said.

Mr. Arafat, during a tour of the West Bank yesterday, condemned the Likud vote.

"This is the destruction of the Oslo accords, which they have signed," Mr. Arafat said, referring to the interim peace agreements he reached with Israel in the 1990s.

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