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Sunday, 12 May, 2002, 23:52 GMT 00:52 UK
Likud embarrasses Sharon
Ariel Sharon gestures to Likud central committee
Mr Sharon tried to avoid this vote, but failed
test hello test
Michael Voss
BBC correspondent, Jerusalem

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has suffered a major setback at the hands of his Likud party with a vote to tie his hands in future peace negotiations.

The war being waged by Israel is not a war against terror, but their war to maintain the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza

Saeb Erekat
Against the express wishes of Mr Sharon and his supporters, the 2,500-strong Likud party central committee voted on a resolution declaring that the party would never support the creation of a Palestinian state.

It is a major defeat for Mr Sharon who, in the past, has publicly acknowledged the possibility of a Palestinian state.

It also throws into jeopardy the whole question of how any meaningful dialogue can be resumed with the Palestinians.

First election salvo

The proposal had been tabled by supporters of the former Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu.

Binyamin Netanyahu
Mr Netanyahu has been waiting to strike
This marks the first step in his bid to regain the party leadership ahead of next year's general election.

The vote shows that there is a very strong section in the Likud party which is very strongly opposed to any concessions with the Palestinians.

Although this is a blow to Mr Sharon, there are questions about how binding this vote will be on him.

He is head of a government coalition which includes members of the centre-left Labour Party and other minor parties, as well as Likud.

Some of his supporters have been suggesting, therefore, that Mr Sharon must continue to negotiate as in the interests of the whole state of Israel, not just according to one party's view.

'Slap in the face'

But it is another blow to the Middle East peace process, after Mr Sharon won praise for his decision to hold off on a planned military offensive against the Gaza Strip.

Statehood is at the centre of Palestinian demands.

This was recently recognised by the US President, George W Bush and is also a central plank of the Saudi peace plan.

Responding to the vote, the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said it was a slap in the face for President Bush.

The vote "unmasked many things", Mr Erekat said. "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."

See also:

12 May 02 | Middle East
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Arab leaders denounce violence
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Eyewitness: Calm end to siege
10 May 02 | Middle East
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In pictures: Bethlehem clean-up
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In pictures: End of Bethlehem siege
09 May 02 | Middle East
Timeline: Bethlehem siege
09 May 02 | Middle East
Bethlehem siege: Inside the negotiations
10 May 02 | Middle East
Gaza gives militants hero's welcome
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