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Monday, 13 May, 2002, 12:13 GMT 13:13 UK
Likud vote challenges Bush policy
Sharon and Netanyahu
Hardliners may prefer Netanyahu (right) to Sharon
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By Paul Reynolds
BBC Middle East Analyst

The vote of the central committee of the Likud party in Israel to oppose the creation of a Palestinian state contradicts the vision of President Bush in which an Israeli and a Palestinian state exist side by side.

A piece of the complex jigsaw which the Americans and others are trying to put together to get peace talks restarted suddenly doesn't fit.

The vote also contradicted the views of the party leader, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

In September last year, he spoke about a Palestinian state. The hardliners have now outflanked him and want all talk of that to stop.

Vote complication

Their vision is much narrower - of a compliant or cowed Palestinian entity with self-government but no statehood. These hardliners would prefer the former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to be the party leader in the next Israeli elections.

Ariel Sharon: Less room for manoeuvre
For them, the man seen by much of the outside world as the hammer of the Palestinians (going back to the Gaza Strip after the war of 1967) is too changeable.

The vote will complicate American efforts, as even Mr Sharon will find less room for manoeuvre - and his instinct, both as general and politician, is to manoeuvre. But the sad thing is that meaningful peace talks are so far away that the Likud vote probably won't make much difference.

There will be talk but not much decision. Ariel Sharon is hardly pressing for a Palestinian state anyway.

His policy has been security- not diplomacy-based - to crush Palestinian resistance and try to build up a more co-operative Palestinian structure as a way of by-passing Yasser Arafat.

But Washington will make the best of a bad job and will still try.

The hope is that a certain exhaustion has set in on both sides and that steps to calm the conflict can be taken. The end of the siege of the Nativity Church in Bethlehem was a start.

Security forces

The cancellation, or postponement, of Israel's operation in Gaza following the snooker hall explosion is a further relaxation of tension. All that, of course, can change in a split second shoudl there be any more suicide bombs.

American policy-makers might decide simply to ignore the Likud bit of the jigsaw which does not fit and work on other parts of the board.

The CIA Director George Tenet is likely to go back to the region soon to talk about co-operation between security forces.

There seems to be a new willingness in the Palestinian Authority to oppose suicide bombs against Israeli civilians.

American efforts will continue to try to convene an international conference, though nobody yet agrees on what such a conference should aim for.

The Arabs want a clear commitment and timetable for a Palestinian state. If Mr Sharon follows the Likud line, then that approach, indeed the whole idea of a conference, might get nowhere.

'Arafat plus'

It is all desperate stuff and more like crisis management than conflict resolution. Perhaps that is the best diplomats can aim for.

One other piece of the puzzle, though, is proving to fit and gives long term hope.

An Arab summit between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria saw further acceptance of the Saudi plan for a settlement with Israel.

Ironically, the conflict betwen Israelis and Palestinians has been at its most intense at a time when opinion in the Arab world has swung in favour of an agreement with Israel.

It is likely that the United States, supported by the Europeans, will use this new support to develop a so called "Arafat plus" policy.

This would deprive Yasser Arafat of his lone voice to determine the Palestinian position and see him surrounded by Arab governments giving him encouragement and cover to reach an agreement.

Look for more of that in days and weeks to come.

But an agreement needs two sides. And just as the Arab states seem to be softening, Likud is hardening.

See also:

13 May 02 | Middle East
Arafat rails against Likud setback
12 May 02 | Middle East
Israel sends Gaza reservists home
16 Oct 01 | Middle East
Israel may accept Palestinian state
11 May 02 | Middle East
Arab leaders denounce violence
11 May 02 | Middle East
Church emerges unharmed from siege
10 May 02 | Middle East
No winners from siege deal
10 May 02 | Middle East
Gaza gives militants hero's welcome
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