Likud votes down Palestinian state

By Steve Weizman, The Associated Press
Monday May 13, 2002

TEL AVIV, Israel — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud party voted early Monday to reject the creation of a Palestinian state, a major defeat for Sharon that he feared would increase international pressure on Israel and tie his hands in potential negotiations. 

On Sunday, some Israeli reservists pulled back from the Gaza Strip after the government said it had postponed an expected offensive in the Palestinian territory. In Bethlehem, nearly 1,000 people attended the first Sunday services in the Church of the Nativity since the end of a five-week standoff there. 

Sharon had strongly opposed the resolution on an eventual Palestinian state and had tried to prevent the vote, but his efforts were rejected and the Likud Central Committee overwhelmingly approved the proposal by a show of hands. 

Though the party body does not have the power to remove Sharon from office, the vote showed his political weakness in his own camp, which could limit his effectiveness and provided an ominous sign for his future leadership of the party ahead of the next election, scheduled for November 2003. 

Behind the confrontation with Sharon was ex-premier Benjamin Netanyahu, who has announced his plans to challenge Sharon for party leadership and eventually, prime minister. 

Only a handful of delegates voted against the Netanyahu-backed resolution, which read, “No Palestinian state will be created west of the Jordan (River),” referring to the area including the West Bank, Israel and the Gaza Strip. 

Opposition to a Palestinian state has been the traditional position of the Likud, but Sharon has said that under stringent conditions, he would agree to creation of such a state, at one point calling it “inevitable.” 

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said the vote “unmasked many things. This just shows that the war being waged by Israel against the Palestinians is not a war against what they call terror, it’s really their war to maintain the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.” He told The Associated Press that the vote was “a real slap in the face” for President Bush, who has spoken in favor of setting up a Palestinian state. 

In Washington, the Bush administration was studying the development and had no immediate, official response. 

But a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that while the party’s vote was a setback for Sharon, it should not be seen as a broader setback for the peace process. The official noted that Israel is run by a coalition government, not Likud alone.