Israel: 'Roadmap' is 'bad' but this is 'not the time to argue' with U.S.

Monday, May 26, 2003

JERUSALEM Israel has accepted the U.S.-sponsored roadmap for the establishment of a Palestinian state by the end of 2003.

"The document is bad, but now is not the time to argue with the United States," Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said. "We are a small country and must maneuver."

The Cabinet of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon voted to approve the roadmap on Sunday. Ministers acknowledged that the 12-7 vote came despite the U.S. refusal to include any of Israel's reservations in the peace plan. A key revision proposed by Israel was for the Palestinians to drop their demand for the return of refugees to Israel.

"The government of Israel today accepted the steps set out in the roadmap," a Cabinet statement said. "The government of Israel further clarifies that, both during and subsequent to the political process, the resolution of the issue of the refugees will not include their entry into or settlement within the state of Israel.

Cabinet sources quoted Sharon as saying that Israel's economic recovery was linked to acceptance of the roadmap. Cabinet sources said the ministers understood this to mean that the Bush administration could block its $9 billion economic aid package, $8 billion of which would be in loan guarantees.

"We took a difficult decision," Sharon said after the meeting. "It was not a happy decision. We will have to take painful concessions." Four ministers abstained. They included Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Cabinet ministers said the United States stressed to Israel that the roadmap would be carried out simultaneously rather than sequentially. They said this would mean that Israel would be pressed to withdraw from large portions of the West Bank and dismantle outposts as soon as the Palestinian Authority submits a plan to stop insurgency attacks.

"They [Likud ministers] are agreeing to the dismantling of settlements," Justice Minister Yosef Lapid said.

The Israeli approval sparked diplomatic efforts for a series of high-level meetings between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United States. Israeli officials said U.S. President George Bush and Sharon are expected to meet in the Jordanian port city of Aqaba in the second week of June.

During Sunday's Cabinet meeting, several Likud ministers tried to attach conditions to the Israeli acceptance of the roadmap. Sharon vetoed all of the proposals and said the United States wants a clear Israeli commitment for the plan, drafted by the European Union, Russia, the United States and the United Nations.

"The map has more than a few things that require correction and more than a few potential traps," former Prime Minister Ehud Barak said. "But the positive aspects of the plan are more important. The map must be accepted, and a situation must not be created, following the war in Iraq, in which Israel is responsible for thwarting a key initiative by the American president."

Sharon placed the roadmap vote on the agenda over the weekend after the United States issued a statement that pledged to address Israeli concerns over the plan, drafted by Washington along with the European Union Russia and the United Nations last year. Israel has submitted 15 objections to the roadmap, which calls for Palestinian efforts to end the more than 30-month-old war against Israel, an Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the establishment of a Palestinian state by the end of the year.

"The United States shares the view of the government of Israel that these are real concerns, and will address them fully and seriously in the implementation of the roadmap to fulfill the president's vision of June 24, 2002," a statement by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said on Friday.

The Israeli Cabinet discussions took place as Hamas pledged to continue attacks on Israeli civilian and military targets. On Friday, nine people were injured in a Hamas bombing attack on an Israeli bus in the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian sources said Hamas insurgents detonated a mine as the bus was moving from the Israeli community of Netsarim to the Karni terminal.

"I'm telling you frankly, the attitude of Islam is not to accept a foreign state in this area," Hamas spokesman Mahmoud Zahar said, referring to Israel.

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