sharon shelves a palestinian state

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    Sharon shelves a Palestinian state
    March 1 2003
    By Gwen Ackerman

    Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday virtually ruled out the creation of a Palestinian state under his hawkish new Government just a day after US President George Bush pledged to broker a peace deal once he had dealt with Iraq.

    Hours before his cabinet was sworn in, Mr Sharon revealed to the Knesset that he had backed away from his commitment to the Palestinian state envisioned by Washington's "road map" for a settlement, as part of the deal to put together his Government.

    Mr Sharon told the Knesset that the road map was "a matter of controversy in the coalition" and had been dropped from the written agreement which drew far right, pro-settler and anti-religious parties into the Administration.

    The Prime Minister will also have frustrated the US by promising to expand Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

    A Palestinian cabinet minister, Saeb Erekat, said Mr Sharon's speech killed any prospect of a peace process under the new Government. "He is saying there is no road map, no peace process. It's a Government for the settlers, from the settlers and by the settlers," he said. "I think Sharon made it clear tonight that he wants the Palestinians to surrender to him. I hope President Bush will see the light."

    The leader of the Labour Opposition, Amram Mitzna, told the Knesset that the composition of the Government meant there was little chance of a breakthrough towards a settlement with the Palestinians.

    Foreign diplomats in Israel were no less pessimistic. One source said: "Everything has been invested in keeping the road map alive and Sharon pledged his support for it even if he wasn't particularly sincere.

    "That illusion is crumbling away even though I suppose he will continue paying lip-service to it for the sake of relations with the US. The best hope is that this Government will not survive for long."

    Although Mr Sharon would clearly have preferred to avoid undermining Mr Bush, he appears to believe he had little choice if he was to put together a coalition. Mr Sharon indicated that talks might still take place with the Palestinians once a series of conditions have been met, including removing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from power. But he revealed that any agreements would be hostage to a vote by a cabinet whose ministers come from parties hostile to a Palestinian state and some of whom advocate ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

    The 120-member parliament voted 66-48 in favour of the coalition Mr Sharon presented yesterday, starting a session of speeches by lawmakers that lasted past midnight.

    In a speech, Mr Sharon repeated his position that Palestinians must stop "incitement and terror" and implement deep democratic reforms before any political negotiations could resume.

    He said Mr Arafat must be replaced and ruled out a return of Palestinian refugees to homes they fled during the 1948 Middle East war, a major Palestinian demand.

    Any flexibility Mr Sharon may seek during negotiations will be hampered by his hawkish coalition, which includes fierce opponents of Palestinian statehood and staunch supporters of Jewish settlements on lands occupied by Israel in 1967.

    Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said: "It is a Government that will serve settlement activities and undermine the road-map plan."

    A quartet of mediators from the US, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia is trying to push forward a staged peace proposal.

    The so-called "road map", which sets as its ultimate goal the establishment of a Palestinian state in 2005, aims to calm nearly 29 months of hostilities, which flared again on Thursday.

    Palestinians said Israeli helicopters opened fire on the northern Gaza Strip city of Beit Hanoun. There were no immediate reports of any casualties.

    The Israeli Army has intensified operations in the strip since militants blew up an Israeli tank and killed four soldiers this month. Military sources confirmed helicopters were operating in the north.

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