A tentative first step towards peace: Israel recognises Palestinian right to statehood

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The Independent Online

The Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, persuaded his reluctant cabinet to accept the international road-map for peace yesterday in a breakthrough that marked, for the first time, explicit Israeli government endorsement of a Palestinian state.

The vote, by 12 to seven with four abstentions, came at the end of an acrimonious six-hour debate and under intense pressure from the US. But to persuade his right-wing colleagues to agree to the road-map, Mr Sharon reaffirmed that 14 Israeli reservations, which the Americans have agreed to take seriously, were a "red line" for future negotiators.

The cabinet also accompanied its qualified acceptance of the road-map with a separate resolution stipulating that Israel would never accept a right of return for Palestinians who fled or were evicted from their old homes inside Israel when the Jewish state was created in 1948.

The three-stage road-map, drawn up by the US, the EU, the UN and Russia, sets out a series of reciprocal steps intended to lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in 2005. Those steps include an end to Palestinian violence and a freeze on Israeli settlement building. It has already been accepted by the Palestinian leadership.

The vote opens the way, if not to the end of 32 months of bloodshed, at least to a set of initial steps, the first of which could be a summit of the US President, George Bush, with Mr Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Prime Minister. The meeting may come at the end of Mr Bush's planned trip to Europe next month. There is also talk of a broader peace conference, with international participation.

Meanwhile, Mr Sharon is expected to meet his Palestinian counterpart later this week. It will be their second encounter since Mr Abbas took office a month ago.

In agreeing to discuss the road-map with his cabinet, Mr Sharon was bowing to an American ultimatum. Washington, urged on by Tony Blair, had insisted that Israel accept the plan without amendments. Progress became possible on Friday when the Americans promised to address Israel's concerns "fully and seriously" and indicated that may be done with annexes or side letters to the main document.

Mr Sharon argued before the vote that peace was essential if Israel was to recover from its severe economic troubles.

But he seemed to be sending Israelis a strategic, as well as a tactical, message. In an interview ahead of the vote, he said: "The moment has arrived to say 'yes' to the Americans, the moment has arrived to divide this tract of land between us and the Palestinians.... When the day comes in years ahead, when I am no longer in the Prime Minister's office, I will say that I tried to do the best I could for the citizens of this country."

Although he did not specify which settlements, if any, he would evacuate, he answered critics who accuse him of betraying all he had built. "I am no less connected to those tracts of land that we will be forced to leave in time than any of those who speak so loftily. But you have to be realistic about what can and what cannot stay in our hands."

Adam Levine, a White House spokesman, said: "We look forward to working with all parties in the region to realise the vision of peace laid out by President Bush."

But the PalestinianInformation Minister, Nabil Amr, said: "The Israelis must implement their obligations without preconditions and without any changes."

Mr Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, said that if Mr Bush adopted the reservations as American policy, it would be the end of the road-map.

The Israeli rejection of the right of return for refugees promises to be one of the biggest stumbling blocks. The road-map leaves the refugee issue,which has been a fundamental Palestinian demand for more than 50 years, to the final stage of negotiations. Tommy Lapid, the leader of Shinui, Mr Sharon's biggest coalition partner, said if Israel rejected the road-map it would be isolated from its sponsors and the decision would be a "catastrophe".

Peace may be on the horizon, but it is not yet around the corner. Last Thursday, Israel's Housing Ministry published a tender for construction of 502 homes in Ma'aleh Adumim, a West Bank settlement town between Jerusalem and Jericho.