Jerusalem, May 25 (Reuters): Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won Cabinet approval today for a US-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 US 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 US President George W. Bush, who had pushed Sharon to accept the most ambitious West Asian peace plan in two years.
“We look forward to working with all parties in the region to realise 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.
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 for there to be an effective implementation of the road map, Israel must help create a conducive environment by freeing detainees, halting settlements, 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.
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 tomorrow between Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Sharon. An Israeli government spokesman confirmed that a meeting was “in the works”.
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 crackdown on militants.
“A Palestinian state is not my life’s dream,” a government spokesman quoted Sharon as telling ministers. “But we must find a solution for generations to come.”
Israeli media reported that Sharon warned some ministers that rejection of the plan, drafted by the US, the EU, Russia, and the UN, would lead to crisis with Washington, Israel’s closest ally.
Russia said it hoped Israeli reservations would not hamper its implementation. “We consider it of fundamental importance that Israel, for the first time in history, has officially accepted the Palestinians’ right to create their own viable, sovereign state,” a foreign ministry statement said.