- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2003

JERUSALEM — Israeli hard-liners vowed yesterday to block a U.S.-backed “road map” for Middle East peace, with one member of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s party calling it “the most dangerous” peace plan ever presented.

The prime minister was expected to ask his 23-member Cabinet today to back the plan, and — despite the resistance — Sharon aides were confident of winning approval.

Mr. Sharon himself was reluctant to embrace the three-stage prescription for setting up a Palestinian state by 2005 and did so Friday only after Washington assured him publicly it would take into account a list of Israeli objections.

For their part, Palestinian leaders said yesterday they expect Washington to keep its promise to them that the road map would not be changed to accommodate Israel, though they welcomed Mr. Sharon’s acceptance of the deal.

The Palestinians accepted the road map last month, and U.S. officials said Friday that their reservations also would be taken into account.

The plan’s first phase calls for Palestinians to rein in militants and Israeli troops to withdraw from Palestinian towns.

Violence continued during the negotiations for a settlement, with two Palestinians killed by army fire in the Gaza Strip, one late Friday and the other, yesterday.

Israeli troops also raided the Tulkarem refugee camp in the West Bank and a house in the city of Hebron, arresting several suspected militants.

Militias have told Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas they would halt attacks on Israeli civilians only if Israel calls off military strikes. Israel has said it would call off strikes only if Palestinians act first to crack down on militias.

Mr. Sharon faces strong opposition to the plan within his four-party coalition, consisting of his own Likud Party, the moderate Shinui and two pro-settler blocs, the National Union and the National Religious Party.

The road map incorporates a previous proposal by Saudi Arabia that envisions Israeli withdrawal from territory it captured in the 1967 Mideast war — the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and east Jerusalem — and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem, all anathema to the Israeli right.

Israel has declared sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, where Palestinians make up about one-third of the population of 600,000.

The plan “goes against the essential strategic interests of Israel,” legislator Yuri Stern of the National Union told the Associated Press. Stern said his party’s two ministers would vote “no.”

Two ministers from the other pro-settler parties also were expected to vote against the plan, Israel Radio said.

Mr. Sharon was to convene Likud ministers before the session today to persuade them to support the plan, according to the Haaretz daily. Several senior Likud figures said they oppose it.

Gideon Saar, the chairman of the Likud faction in parliament, called the road map “the most dangerous Middle East plan that was ever presented. … This document includes the Saudi program, the Saudi program includes a return to the 1967 lines, division of Jerusalem.”

Likud minister Uzi Landau called it a “recipe for terror.”

However, Shinui, the second-largest party in the coalition, said it would support the road map.

Shimon Peres, Israel’s elder statesman, called on Mr. Sharon to ratify the plan without preconditions.”This is the only international document for solving the dispute in our region which has won the support of the United States and the whole world, the Palestinian Authority and a decisive majority of the Israeli public,” Mr. Peres said in a prepared statement.

Even if Mr. Sharon wins Cabinet approval, disputes with the Palestinians could resurface in the plan’s first stage.

Militants have staged six attacks on Israelis in a week, killing 12 Israelis and wounding dozens. The latest was a bus bombing Friday in the Gaza Strip that wounded two passengers.

Israel also has demanded the Palestinians drop a demand for the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to former homes in what is now Israel.

The peace plan says the fate of the refugees is to be discussed only in the third stage, when the terms of Palestinian statehood will be negotiated.

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