Sunday, May 25, 2003

JERUSALEM — Israel’s Cabinet narrowly approved a U.S.-backed Middle East peace plan yesterday, accepting for the first time a timetable for the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza but objecting to significant portions of the plan.

“It was a historic day,” Cabinet Minister Tzipi Livni said. “It was not an easy vote for a right-wing coalition. Maybe it’s a sign of hope.”

Last month, the Palestinians accepted the three-phase “road map” to peace, which envisions a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza by 2005.

Under strong U.S. pressure, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reluctantly embraced the plan Friday, after Washington assured him publicly that it would “fully and seriously” address Israel’s objections to parts of it.

Mr. Sharon told his Cabinet during the six-hour meeting yesterday that it had to approve the plan to pull the nation out of its recession. He also reassured the ministers that he would not back away from any of the government’s objections, participants said.

“The time has come to say yes to the Americans. The time has come to divide this land between us and the Palestinians,” Mr. Sharon told the Yediot Ahronot daily.

The 23-member Cabinet voted 12-7, with four abstentions, to approve the plan along with the government’s objections. The objections have to do with Jewish settlements that must be dismantled under the road map. Israel also wants the Palestinians to stop suicide attacks on Israeli civilians before the Jewish state takes any steps.

Israeli and Palestinian officials said Mr. Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas would meet after the vote, although they differed on the timing.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said the two leaders would meet Tuesday evening in Jerusalem. Raanan Gissin, a Sharon aide, said Israel is “looking forward” to a second meeting but that he could not say when it would take place.

On May 18, Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas met at Mr. Sharon’s office in Jerusalem, the first summit meeting since Palestinian-Israeli violence erupted in September 2000.

Meanwhile, support personnel left Washington yesterday to prepare for a likely presidential trip to Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, to meet with the two prime ministers. Mr. Bush also might visit Jordan and a third country in the region after the Group of Eight summit in Evian, France, three U.S. administration officials said.

Yesterday the Bush administration praised Israel for the Cabinet’s decision.

“We welcome this development in confirmation of Prime Minister Sharon’s acceptance of the road map,” the State Department said. “We will continue to work closely with both sides throughout implementation of the road map.”

The vote met with strong opposition within Mr. Sharon’s four-party coalition — consisting of his Likud Party; the moderate Shinui Party; and two right-wing blocs, the National Union and the National Religious Party, both of which opposed the plan.

However, both parties said they plan to remain in the coalition.

“Israel has taken a very dangerous step,” said Effi Eitam, head of the National Religious Party.

Mr. Sharon faced resistance even within Likud and met with his party’s ministers before the Cabinet meeting to appeal for their support. Uzi Landau, a Likud minister opposed to the plan, told Israeli radio that Washington’s assurances are a “sugar-coated cyanide pill.”

Even some of those who voted for the plan said they had serious reservations about the road map but did not want to anger the United States.

“I think the document is not a good one, but we have to choose when we battle the U.S., and now is not the time,” Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Israeli radio.

It was not clear whether Mr. Sharon’s decision to go along with the road map was just a tactical move. Israeli media quoted his advisers as saying he did not want to be seen as turning down U.S. requests but felt there was little chance Israel would be forced to make painful concessions, because he expects the Palestinians not to carry out their obligations under the plan.

Although the United States said it would take into account Israel’s objections to the plan, it has also promised the Palestinians that the road map won’t be changed. The Palestinians had demanded that Israel accept the road map unconditionally.

“We do not accept any buts,” Mr. Abbas said Saturday in an interview with Egyptian state television. “The road map must be accepted as it is, from A to Z, with all its conditions and all its stages, and any changes to the text will definitely not be accepted.”

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, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and East Jerusalem — and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem, all anathema to the Israeli right.

In Sunday’s vote, the Cabinet left itself a loophole by approving steps outlined in the road map but not the document itself. This could allow Israel to back away from parts of the plan, particularly the Saudi proposal. The Cabinet also affirmed Israel’s objections to more than a dozen points of the plan, including a provision to discuss the fate of Palestinian refugees.

The Islamic militant group Hamas, which has carried out scores of deadly attacks against Israel in 32 months of fighting, rejected the road map, saying it was meant to undermine Palestinian resistance.

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

Israel has said it would begin implementing the plan only after the Palestinians crack down on the militants. Mr. Abbas has refused to make a move against militants before the adoption of the road map, and Hamas has rejected calls for a truce.

“Now the ball is in the court of the Palestinians,” Mr. Livni said. “If they succeed in eliminating terror, maybe there is a chance for the Palestinians to live in a state.”

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