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Last Updated: Sunday, 25 May, 2003, 21:49 GMT 22:49 UK
Israel narrowly backs peace plan
Ariel Sharon
Ariel Sharon: Accepting the plan - but with reservations
The Israeli cabinet has given qualified backing to the latest Middle East peace plan, which envisages the step-by-step creation of a Palestinian state.

Despite opposition from several far-right ministers and members of his own Likud party, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won the vote by 12 votes to seven, with four abstentions.

He had reportedly warned his cabinet that failure to approve the US-backed plan - which the Palestinians have already accepted - would lead to a crisis with Washington.

However, the cabinet also voted overwhelmingly against any return by Palestinian refugees to areas of Israel vacated during the 1948-49 Middle East war - a move denounced by the Palestinians.

The BBC's Middle East correspondent James Reynolds says the cabinet has made clear that it does not see the roadmap as a set of obligations, and that it expects its many reservations to be addressed fully and seriously.

Our correspondent says there will be an early, important test in the coming days when the Israeli and the Palestinian prime ministers are expected to hold their second face to face meeting.

It is at this point, he says, that we may able to judge exactly how far and how fast each side is willing to go with the road map.

Nonetheless, Israel's acceptance of the plan does mark the first time an Israeli government has formally endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state.

It also paves the way for a mooted three-way summit next month between US President George W Bush, Mr Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas - more commonly known as Abu Mazen.

The United States welcomed Israel's approval of the plan as "an important step forward".

Israeli 'concerns'

During the cabinet session, Mr Sharon said 14 reservations about the plan which Israel has presented to Washington were not negotiable.

Phase 1 (to May 2003): End to Palestinian violence; Palestinian political reform; Israeli withdrawal and freeze on settlement expansion; Palestinian elections
Phase 2: (June-Dec 2003) Creation of an independent Palestinian state; international conference and international monitoring of compliance with roadmap
Phase 3 (2004-2005): Second international conference; permanent status agreement and end of conflict; agreement on final borders, Jerusalem, refugees and settlements; Arab states to agree to peace deals with Israel

The objections have not been made public, but on Friday Mr Sharon announced he would accept the roadmap after the US said it would "address" Israel's concerns during the "implementation" of the plan.

Before voting on the roadmap, the Israeli cabinet passed a motion rejecting the Palestinian demand of the right of refugees to return to their former homes in Israel - a move which Israel says would demographically destroy the Jewish state.

Nabil Abu Rudeina, an aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, said: "The Israeli approval with reservations is not enough. We want them to approve the roadmap completely, with no conditions, as the Palestinian side did."

Hurdles ahead

The BBC's Richard Galpin in Jerusalem says the real test will come when both sides are expected to implement the first phase of the plan.

Israeli protests against road map during cabinet discussions
There is fierce opposition to the roadmap in Israel

This includes concrete measures by the Palestinians to end militant violence.

The Islamic militant group Hamas, which has carried out scores of suicide bombings against Israel, reiterated its opposition to the roadmap on Sunday, calling it "a conspiracy to liquidate the Palestinian cause and resistance".

While the Palestinians fulfil their obligations, the Israeli military is expected to gradually withdraw from areas occupied over the past three years and to freeze all settlement expansion in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Mr Sharon has already made clear that that only building on sites not approved by the Israeli Government will be stopped.

The Israeli cabinet backed the plan after a stormy six-hour debate, and Mr Sharon himself only grudgingly endorsed it.

"The time has come to say yes to the Americans, the time has come to divide this land between us and the Palestinians," the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot quoted him as saying.

The BBC's Richard Galpin
"After weeks of hesitation the Israeli government has finally taken the plunge"

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