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Likud no state { May 13 2002 }

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Sharon Suffers Political Defeat
Palestinian State Rejected by Party

By Lee Hockstader
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 13, 2002; Page A01

JERUSALEM, May 12 -- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon tonight suffered a major defeat when his own Likud Party voted for a resolution saying there should never be a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The vote by the right-wing Likud's policymaking Central Committee could complicate future negotiations with Palestinians. It also defied the Bush administration, which has made support for the eventual creation of a Palestinian state a centerpiece of its policy in the Middle East.

The vote was an embarrassment for Sharon, who has tried hard to convince Washington and the West that he intends to pursue a policy of peace despite Israel's recent assaults on Palestinian cities and refugee camps in the West Bank.

"Any decision taken today on the final agreement [between Israel and the Palestinians] is dangerous to the state of Israel and will only intensify the pressures on us needlessly," Sharon told the assembled Likud members in a vain attempt to forestall a vote. The remark was greeted by a chorus of boos and jeers.

Meanwhile, Israeli security officials confirmed media reports that Sharon had decided to postpone a broad assault on Palestinian targets in the Gaza Strip.

After a raucous seven-hour meeting, the party rejected a proposal by Sharon to cancel any ballot on Palestinian statehood. The vote against Sharon's motion was 669 to 465.

The Israeli leader, apparently stunned by his defeat, walked out of the hall in Tel Aviv with some supporters. Then, by a show of hands, the party overwhelmingly adopted a resolution that stated flatly, "No Palestinian state will be established west of the Jordan River" -- that is, in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

On one level, the Likud decision was an internecine political skirmish in which Sharon was outflanked by his main political rival, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who strongly backed the resolution.

Neither Sharon nor Netanyahu has any affection for an independent Palestinian state but each was forced by the exigencies of politics and diplomacy to accept the idea -- Netanyahu implicitly, when he affirmed his lukewarm support for the Oslo peace process several years ago, and Sharon explicitly, when he said twice last year he would support a Palestinian state, albeit on very restrictive terms.

However, Netanyahu, who was voted out of office in 1999, subsequently renounced Oslo and the creation of a Palestinian state. Sharon, who took office last year, accepted the idea in principle -- although the state he has described falls well short of the Palestinians' minimum territorial demands.

The resolution assumed added significance, however, because many political analysts in Israel say they expect security-minded Likud, which returned to power after the outbreak of the current armed Palestinian uprising, to remain the country's most powerful party for the foreseeable future. If Sharon is displaced as prime minister, either at the end of his term in the fall of 2003 or earlier, most Israelis believe he will be replaced by Netanyahu, whose poll ratings are high.

Likud's Central Committee is a notoriously hawkish body, more so than the party's overall membership, analysts said. And the decision does not technically bind the prime minister's hands. Nonetheless, it stands as a milestone in Israeli politics, marking the hardening of opinions of the country's mainstream institutions toward the Palestinians after 19 months of suicide bombings, shootings and other bloodshed.

"It's good that our enemies will know the absolute feelings of our people and the members of the Central Committee of the Likud," Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Sharon and a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, told Israeli television.

Israeli journalist Ari Shavit wrote last week in the newspaper Haaretz that the vote would mean "Likud's return to the lost notion of a Greater Israel; the right's return to the dead-end policy of perpetuating the occupation; [and] the negation of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination."

Tonight, Sharon and Netanyahu hardly looked at each other as they sat on the dais for much of the raucous meeting.

In a fiery address to the party faithful, among whom he is wildly popular, Netanyahu warned that any Palestinian state now or in the future posed a grave threat to Israel's existence. He raised the specter of a state that would make alliances with Iraq's Saddam Hussein, import weapons and fighters that would imperil Israel's security, shoot down Israeli aircraft and steal Israeli water.

"Just say no to a Palestinian state!" he roared.

He repeatedly scoffed at international public opinion favoring a Palestinian state, noting that international public opinion had done nothing to halt Nazi aggression in the 1930s.

"Did the international community do anything about the coming of the Holocaust?" he demanded. "Did they lift a finger?"

Sharon, in his own speech, made scant reference to the establishment of a Palestinian state and did not repeat his statements from last year that he would be willing to accept one. Rather, he lashed out at Yasser Arafat's administration, using the word "terror" several dozen times in reference to the Palestinian Authority. His message to the Likud members seemed designed to forestall a vote on a Palestinian state by reassuring them that there would not be any peace talks leading to a state.

"There can be no peace with terror, with a man of terror," he said. "To make real peace for generations, we must beat the terror. There is no other way."

Palestinian officials treated the Likud vote as a public relations windfall that they hoped would help offset sympathy for Israel in the United States and expose what they see as the real intentions of Sharon's party to extend Israeli occupation of Palestinian terrority indefinitely.

"I hope that this vote will be an eye-opener for President Bush to realize that what the Israelis are doing now is not a war against terror," said Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian negotiator. "It's a war to maintain their occupation of 3.3 million Palestinians. It's a war to beef up the settlement activities."

After a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 15 Israelis last week in a pool hall south of Tel Aviv, Sharon's cabinet had authorized a large-scale attack.

But the government balked over the weekend, worried about high casualties in any operation in the densely populated Gaza Strip as well as the diplomatic fallout that would almost certainly accompany any such attack.

Today in Gaza, a Palestinian worker shot dead his Israeli employer near a checkpoint leading to a Jewish settlement near the Egyptian border.

2002 The Washington Post Company

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