‘road Map’ Vote Seen As Historic, but the Hard Part is Just Beginning

The Israeli Cabinet’s approval of the “road map” toward Israeli-Palestinian peace, the first time an Israeli government has explicitly endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state, was hailed as a historic development.

But Sunday’s decision — welcomed by the United States — left Palestinians wary, Israeli settlers worried and commentators wondering whether the vote was a tactical move to avoid confrontation with the United States or whether Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon truly had changed his approach to peace-making.

Many analysts saw the vote as the latest volley in a complex game of diplomatic pingpong, with each side maneuvering to tap the ball into the other’s court in hopes of exposing his adversary’s lack of commitment to the plan.

In a 12-7 vote, with four abstentions, Sharon’s government voted to accept the “steps set out in the road map” for a phased ending of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But the Cabinet also appended 14 reservations to the road map, which the United States has agreed to “address.”

The Cabinet also ruled out the Palestinian demand that refugees from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence and their descendants — several million people in all — be granted a “right of return” to their former homes inside Israel.

Israelis see this as tantamount to calling for an end to the Jewish state. Sharon had demanded — unsuccessfully — that just as Israel was asked to commit at the start of the process to the establishment of a Palestinian state, the Palestinians should be forced to forego the “right of return” and acknowledge in advance that refugees would be resettled only in the future Palestinian state.

Israel’s acceptance was enough for officials to continue preparations for an anticipated June summit in Jordan with President Bush, Sharon and Abbas. The leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia also might attend, according to reports.

Sources in Jerusalem also said Monday that a second bilateral meeting between Sharon and his Palestinian Authority counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, is likely sometime this week.

But the Palestinians were wary of Israel’s decision, arguing that inclusion of the reservations robs the initiative of its content. The Palestinians have accepted the road map as is, and insist that Israel do so as well.

Speaking after talks in Ramallah on Monday with the visiting French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, P.A. President Yasser Arafat welcomed the Israeli move but said Israel’s reservations raised “question marks.”

“We are not talking about gestures, but rather about a policy that Sharon will have to implement, article by article, with the same seriousness that he wants us to fight terror,” one P.A. Cabinet minister told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

The road map calls on Israel to uproot illegal settlement outposts, withdraw troops to the positions they held before the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000 and stop anti-terror measures that target terrorist kingpins and harm civilians.

Meanwhile, Israeli right-wingers assailed Sharon for agreeing to what settler leaders decried as a proposal “worse than the Oslo accords.”

Settler ideologue Elyakim Haetzni compared supporters of the peace plan to Holocaust-era Jews who “willingly boarded those trains” to the concentration camps, “believing everything that the Germans told them.”

Responding to praise for the vote as a historic development, Haetzni said it was historic “in the same sense that the destruction of the Temple was historic.”

Settler leaders who met with legislators in the Knesset on Monday said they would launch a campaign to oppose Israeli implementation of the accord.

The far-right National Union bloc was debating whether to quit the government. Though they were outraged by the vote, some members of the bloc said they could more effectively scuttle the plan from inside the government than from outside.

Even Sharon’s defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, appeared to distance himself from the decision, a day after he voted for the proposal.

Mofaz said Monday that the Cabinet vote was not legally binding, but was merely a “declaration of diplomatic intentions.”

Even Sharon, who said Israel must be willing to pay a “painful price” to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians, acknowledged that the vote was “not a happy decision.”

Addressing angry members of his Likud Party on Monday, Sharon said that Israel’s occupation of 3.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would be “bad for Israel, bad for the Palestinians and bad for the economy.”

Israel does not want to sit indefinitely in the West Bank cities of Jenin and Nablus, Sharon said, adding that diplomatic progress is critical for economic improvement.

“I know that there are doubts,” Sharon continued. “Everyone has doubts. I have doubts as well. But I know one thing: We must try.”

But Sharon’s critics within the party were relentless. Former Foreign Minister David Levy called the road map “the document containing the worst things ever faced by the government of Israel.”

After insisting for two years that he would not negotiate under fire, Sharon in fact has restarted the diplomatic process while Palestinian terrorism is continuing. In addition, the road map allows for unprecedented international involvement in the process, even by parties — such as the European Union, Russia and the United Nations — that Israel feels are biased in favor of the Palestinians.

In addition, one of the conditions for restarting the diplomatic process was to be the removal of Arafat, as called for in President Bush’s landmark policy speech last June 24. But while Abbas was appointed prime minister as a way of easing Arafat aside, Arafat retains control over most of the Palestinian security services and much of the P.A. government — levers that Israel says he is using to foment terrorism, even as the international community gives the Palestinians credit for changing leaders.

It also is not clear the extent to which the plan will be performance-based. After the disastrous experience of the Oslo accords, Israel insists that the sides proceed from stage to stage of the road map only after each has fulfilled its commitments.

The Palestinians, in contrast, say the plan must proceed according to a strict timetable that calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state in just three years.

Israelis fear the plan’s timeline is so compressed that it will be impossible for the Palestinians to fulfill their commitments — such as dismantling the terrorist organizations and collecting illegal weapons — in the few months allotted for each stage. Many fear that will lead to international pressure for Israeli concessions after only token Palestinian steps, in order to keep to the timetable.

“Israel’s policy must be clear: It must do everything possible to reach a political settlement” that doesn’t compromise its security, Sharon said.

Coming from the man who was Israel’s leading hawk for years and a patron of the Israeli settlement movement, Sharon’s remarks left commentators wondering whether the prime minister had executed a deft political maneuver or had really changed his approach.

In leading the government toward acceptance of the plan, Sharon avoided pressure from the Bush administration and the international community. It also placed the onus temporarily on the Palestinians, who have committed yet again to fight terrorism but have said they could not do so until Israel accepted the road map.

Sharon’s gamble is that, if the Palestinians do take real steps against terror, he will be called on to answer with tangible Israeli moves — the “painful concessions” he has talked about for so long but until now has never revealed.

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