Likud's vote against statehood has handed its Arab enemies a gift

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The Independent Online

Israel's right-wing Likud party has no greater enemy than Yasser Arafat. And yet it has just done him a favour.

Palestinian officials have long argued that, no matter what Israel's spokesmen say, the government of Ariel Sharon has no intention of allowing Palestinians to establish a state. Why else, they say, would Israel's armed forces have done so much to destroy the fledgling institutions of statehood during their invasions of Palestinian towns?

Now the Likud, which Mr Sharon founded, has added weight to their case by passing a resolution saying that there should never be a Palestinian state west of the Jordan river.

Palestinians reacted with public outrage to the resolution. It was passed with overwhelming support in the early hours of yesterday (local time) by Likud's central committee in defiance of Mr Sharon himself, who failed to secure a postponement and then – to booing – marched out of the Tel Aviv hall before the count.

The vote was, Mr Arafat announced, "the destruction of the Oslo agreement", as if the accords had not already been ripped to pieces. But the Palestinians also know that it has helped to prove their point. The Likud vote flies in the face of Mr Sharon's own public position, which is to present himself as a peace-maker whose only concern is to secure his nation's security in the face of terrorists. He has several times referred to the possibility of a Palestinian state, although his critics treat this with scepticism and dismiss it as lip-service for the ears of the international community.

The resolution also jars with the policy of the United States, Israel's closest ally. The Bush administration has made the two-state solution the theme song of its efforts to serenade the Middle East towards calm.

Mr Sharon's close associate, the Likud cabinet minister Limor Livnat, spelt out his leader's position after the vote. "The question is how Israel looks to the world. On the international front, Arafat, who in fact is behind inhuman acts of terrorism, will present, verbally, an atmosphere of moderation," she said. "We, who as a nation have worked tirelessly for peace, are putting forth a stance that is liable to put us out of the picture as a basis for all negotiations,"she said.

If opinion surveys are to be believed, the vote also goes against the wishes of the Israelis. More than two thirds continue to tell pollsters they would agree to a Palestinian state as part of a peace deal.

The Likud resolution is not Israeli government policy. It does not bind Mr Sharon to any position. But with an election slated for no later than next year, his rival Benjamin Netanyahu, the driving force behind the vote, has served notice that the battle has begun to unseat him. In the clash of these titans, any suggestion of support for Palestinian statehood will be used as a weapon.

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