Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, cleared the first hurdle yesterday. His Cabinet accepted the international road-map for peace with the Palestinians. That qualified acceptance allows him to avoid a clash with Israel's main ally, the United States, and shifts responsibility for the next steps back on to the Palestinians. For Washington, the immediate goal is now in sight: to get peace talks up and running while postponing the difficulties to a later date.
But Mr Sharon has still to sell the road-map to his own constituency of right-wing and religious parties in parliament and the country. That will not be very easy.
Three of his Likud party ministers - Uzi Landau, Yisrael Katz and the former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky - voted against the cabinet resolution. Four more, including the Finance Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, who aspires to regain the party leadership, abstained.
Mr Landau denounced the plan as "more dangerous than the Oslo accords". Others confided that they were endorsing it only because they didn't expect the Palestinians to deliver. Shaul Mofaz, the Defence Minister, voted for the resolution but repeated his contention that the road-map was "bad for Israel." The Likud dissenters and their colleagues of the pro-settler National Religious Party said last night that they would not resign from the government, but the ultra-nationalist National Union is being pressed from the back benches to pull out.
Arieh Eldad, one of the seven National Union MPs, said: "There are red lines that can't be crossed." Yuval Steinitz, the Likud chairman of the parliamentary foreign affairs and defence committee, said he would fight the cabinet resolution. He estimated that at least half of the 40 Likud MPs would join him. "It's a very bad decision," he told The Independent. "I will vote against it in the Knesset and the party forums. The road-map is a completely unbalanced plan, which takes account of the essential demands of the Palestinians, but ignores those of Israel." The opposition Labour and Meretz parties offered Mr Sharon a parliamentary safety net if the right gangs up against him. Labour, which paved the way yesterday for the 79-year-old Shimon Peres to return as interim leader for the next year, is not talking about joining a national unity government. Not yet, anyway.
Israeli commentators question Mr Sharon's conversion to territorial compromise. They note that, in recent interviews, the Prime Minister has given with one hand, then taken back with the other. "He creates the impression of whispering secrets in your ear," wrote Yoel Marcus in the liberal daily Ha'aretz, "and most of all he tells you what you want to hear - which is not always the truth."
There are also serious questions marks against the ability of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Prime Minister, to implement the road-map. Yasser Arafat, who is still president, is striving to deny him control of the myriad Palestinian security services.
The Fatah movement's executive, which remains loyal to the historic leader, Mr Arafat, claimed last week that Mr Abbas' choice, Mohammed Dahlan, had no authority over security. Although he is a veteran Palestinian nationalist, Mr Abbas lacks a popular constituency. His enemies are trying to delegitimise him. A leaflet distributed outside Jerusalem mosques on Friday accused him of being a closet devotee of the Bahai sect, which is anathema to Muslims.
His chances of persuading the militant organisations to honour a ceasefire as a first step along the road to peace are slim. Some Israelis who oppose the road-map will be banking on this to provide them with the excuse not to fulfil Israel's side of the road-map.
Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas spokesman, said yesterday: "Now Palestinians and Israelis want to implement a road-map which permits the killing of Muslims, but prohibits attacks on the aggressor. We will not accept a ceasefire. We will continue fighting until the end of the occupation."
THREE STAGES LEADING TO THE CREATION OF A PALESTINIAN STATE
The blueprint for peace sets out three stages of reciprocal steps leading to a Palestinian state by 2005. Details include:
- The Palestinians must undertake an immediate cessation of violence.
- Palestinians must undertake democratic reforms to institutions.
- Israeli leadership issues "unequivocal statement" affirming its commitment to the two-state vision of "an independent, viable, sovereign Palestinian state" living in peace and security alongside Israel.
- Palestinian Authority begins "sustained, targeted and effective operations aimed at confronting all those engaged in terror and dismantlement of terrorist capabilities and infrastructure". Steps include confiscation of illegal weapons.
- Israel immediately dismantles settlement outposts erected since March 2001 and freezes expansion of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
- As "comprehensive security performance moves forward", Israeli army withdraws progressively from areas occupied since 28 September, 2000, the start of the Palestinian uprising for statehood.
There are three phases to the road-map:
Phase 1 (to May 2003):
End of terrorism, normalisation of Palestinian life and Palestinian political reform. Israeli withdrawal and end of settlement activity. Palestinian elections.
Phase 2 (June-December 2003):
Creation of an independent Palestinian state. International conference and international monitoring of compliance with road-map.
Phase 3 (2004-05):
Second international conference. Permanent status agreement and end to the conflict. Agreement on final borders, Jerusalem, refugees and settlements. Arab states to agree to peace deals with Israel.Reuse content