Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, facing an uproar in his Cabinet over a political ally’s call for Israel to make sweeping territorial concessions to the Palestinians, promised Sunday that no such plan would move forward without a vote of his ministers.
The political turmoil in Sharon’s camp was mirrored on the Palestinian side, as Prime Minister Ahmed Korei failed to win a cease-fire pledge from militant groups. Three days of talks among Palestinian factions in Cairo ended in disarray, with groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad refusing to proffer even a conditional truce to Israel.
At a stormy meeting of Sharon’s Cabinet, far-right partners in the governing coalition threatened to bring down the government if a plan put forth last week by Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert were to move ahead, saying his proposals would amount to surrender in the face of Palestinian attacks.
In an interview published Friday in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper, Olmert, a leading member of Sharon’s conservative Likud Party, suggested that Israel should draw its own borders and relinquish the Gaza Strip, much of the West Bank and some parts of East Jerusalem for a Palestinian state.
Friday is the start of the Jewish Sabbath, and the full force of the reaction was not felt until Sunday, the start of the Israeli workweek and the day Sharon’s Cabinet usually meets. Israeli commentators marveled at the stance taken by Olmert, a hard-liner who is considered Sharon’s right-hand man.
“When ‘not-one-inch’ Olmert recommends unilateral withdrawal, that is a genuine ideological turnaround,” said an editorial in the newspaper in which the interview appeared.
Olmert’s remarks were read by other observers as part of Sharon’s continuing strategy of preparing Likud hard-liners for a policy change. Traditionally, Likud has opposed making territorial concessions to the Palestinians, such as giving up Jewish settlements, as part of a peace accord.
The ideas outlined by Olmert were similar to those laid out last month by senior Sharon aides, who disclosed to the Israeli media that the prime minister was considering a unilateral pullout from Gaza and much of the West Bank if talks with the Palestinians failed. That was coupled with a warning that in the absence of an agreement, Sharon might annex the West Bank settlements Israel wanted to keep, effectively drawing the borders of a Palestinian state himself.
Sharon never publicly confirmed elements of that proposal, saying only that unilateral steps were a possibility. Still, the leaked plan raised a storm of opposition from the far right -- much like that generated by Olmert’s remarks.
Housing Minister Effi Eitam, whose National Religious Party is the chief patron of the settlement movement, said making concessions such as those Olmert suggested would be tantamount to handing a military victory to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat after more than three years of conflict and bloodshed.
“Suddenly we discover that we have no choice other than to make Arafat into the great winner in this war? That we will get up one night and flee?” Eitam said. “This would serve the goal of the destruction of the state of Israel.”
During a Cabinet meeting Sunday, Sharon offered assurances of full consultations before any action was taken on Olmert’s proposal.
Another right-wing minister, Avigdor Lieberman of the National Union Party, complained during the closed-door Cabinet meeting about Olmert unveiling such proposals in the press rather than an official forum.
Sharon, according to Israeli media accounts, replied that what Olmert did was better than conducting freelance negotiations with the Palestinians -- a slap at the unofficial Geneva Accord, a symbolic peace plan formally launched this month in the Swiss city. The accord also calls on Israel to relinquish Gaza and most of the West Bank and for the two sides to share Jerusalem.
The Sharon government was angered last week when U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell met with the Geneva Accord’s main architects, Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed-Rabbo, both former Cabinet ministers in their respective governments.
Popular support for the Geneva Accord and other alternative peace plans, coupled with U.S. pressure to get the peace process moving again, has put Sharon on the defensive in recent weeks. Public opinion polls have suggested that the majority of Israelis believe a Palestinian state is inevitable and that to make peace, Israel will have to give up territory.
For many Israelis, what struck a chord in Olmert’s comments was the frank acknowledgment of the demographic realities of Greater Israel -- Israel proper combined with the Palestinian territories. If Israel retains sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Olmert warned, Jews will eventually find themselves in the minority, and the state will risk losing its Jewish character.
The Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- which now stands at about 3.5 million -- is growing considerably faster than that of Israeli Jews, who number about 5.2 million. In addition, more than 1.2 million Israeli citizens are Arabs.
Olmert said the course he suggested was in line with what most Likud members “believe in their hearts.”
“I spoke the truth, and I spoke it as sharply as it should be spoken, believe me,” he told Israel Radio. “The majority of Likud members love the country, love the whole land of Israel, love the settlements -- but they also want to make sure that Israel exists as a Jewish state.”
Although Israeli and Palestinian officials say they want to renew attempts to implement the U.S.-supported “road map,” which calls for the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005, significant steps have been on hold pending an initial meeting between Sharon and Korei.
The failure of the Cairo cease-fire talks was a blow to Korei, who had hoped a truce offer would strengthen his hand in dealings with Sharon. After nearly two months of relative calm, a new descent into violence would make it almost impossible for Korei to win any easing of military restrictions on Palestinians in much of the West Bank and parts of Gaza.
The government of Korei’s predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas, fell apart soon after the collapse over the summer of a self-declared truce by militant groups.
At one point in the Cairo talks, the factions floated the idea of offering to refrain from attacks on civilians inside Israel, while leaving open the possibility of strikes against Israeli soldiers and settlers. Israel flatly rejected any such notion.
“Israel certainly cannot discriminate between citizens and surely cannot accept any distinction drawn between one citizen and another, wherever they may happen to live,” Sharon told journalists earlier Sunday, before the Cairo talks ended.