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Cabinet minister spurns Sharon line

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WASHINGTON, May 7 (JTA) — Benny Elon may sit in the Israeli Cabinet, but you wouldn’t know it from the message he brought to Washington this week. While Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has publicly welcomed the “road map” toward Israeli-Palestinian peace — while making clear his concerns about the plan — Elon, the tourism minister, was making the rounds blasting the road map and offering his own, radically different approach. Elon, a leader of the far-right National Union Party, met in Washington this week with some lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), as well as evangelical Christian leaders. A spokesman for Elon said he was on official tourism business, including efforts to get the State Department to downgrade the travel warning currently in place on visits to Israel. But he also has been speaking out against the “road map” crafted by the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia. The plan was officially presented last week to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Elon has been advocating his own peace plan, which would make Jordan — which already has a majority Palestinian population — into the Palestinian state. Elon was unavailable for comment Wednesday, as he was cutting short his visit to return to Israel. The “Elon Peace Initiative” calls for dismantling the Palestinian Authority, resettling Palestinian refugees in Jordan, offering economic assistance to Jordan and ending Palestinian terrorism against Israel. His party also has recommended “transferring” Palestinians from the West Bank to Jordan. Sharon chastised Elon earlier this week, saying it is inappropriate for a member of the government to speak out against government policy while traveling on state business. “This causes severe damage to the state,” Sharon said, “especially when we are talking about a minister who is supposed to be representing the positions of the government.” Sharon has publicized its concerns about the road map, but he has tried to work them out with the Bush administration because of Bush’s strong support for Israel. Most significantly, Sharon has agreed to meet with the new Palestinian Authority prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas. Some Israeli officials and U.S. Jewish leaders and are concerned that Elon’s comments could alienate administration officials who back the road map. Elon traveled to Washington repeatedly after becoming tourism minister following the assassination of Rehavam Ze’evi in October 2001, until his party left Sharon’s first government a year later. He returned to the ministry after Sharon formed a new government this spring. Some say Elon’s goal is to foster an independent support base in the United States. Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), who met with Elon on Tuesday, said Elon didn’t speak about the road map. However, Berkley said she shared her own concerns about the plan. She added that she doesn’t consider it problematic for Israeli Cabinet ministers to express viewpoints different from their government’s. “I don’t see the official Israeli government embracing the road map either,” she said. “Members of the American Congress are smart enough to know what is the official viewpoint of the Israeli government.” Elon is not the first Israeli minister to bring a message to Washington that differs from the official government line. Addressing American audiences in 2001, Sharon and his then-foreign minister, Shimon Peres, gave different views of how Israel should deal with the Palestinians: Sharon called for a complete end to violence before peace talks could resume, while Peres advocated Israeli concessions to get the process started. However, analysts noted that, as a former prime minister and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Peres has enormous stature in both Jerusalem and Washington. In addition, he was a part of a national unity government, which by its nature is given to diverging viewpoints. Some suggested that Peres and Sharon were playing a sort of good cop/bad cop routine, but few believe that’s the case with Elon. Israeli officials feel confident that U.S. lawmakers will not take Elon’s comments as the official Israeli line. “American policy-makers should understand that when it comes to national security policy in Israel, the prime minister, foreign minister and defense minister articulate the policy,” an Israeli official in Washington said. American Jewish leaders agree, noting that Sharon’s condemnation of Elon’s activities helped to neutralized his message. Still, some worry that Elon might be taken seriously. “It’s disconcerting to have an advocate for ethnic transfer walking the halls of Congress speaking for the Israeli government,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now. Elon did address the Zionist Organization of America, which opposes the road map. But Jewish leaders said at least one Jewish organization chose not to meet with Elon during his visit. The Elon spokesman said that wasn’t true.

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