Israeli legislators bridle at fresh US plans for peace in the Middle East

Sharon's vision for a 'Greater Israel' may be at stake along with his fragile ruling coalition.

American plans to revive Middle East peacemaking are clouding the future of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and threatening his vision of a Greater Israel.

Dan Naveh, a cabinet minister from Mr. Sharon's Likud party, counseled the Bush administration on Friday to step back from its impending stab at regional diplomacy. "The US helped achieve progress between Israel and the Arabs only when it did not publicly put a plan on the table, but conducted quiet contacts between the sides," he told state-run Israel Radio.

"What I hear about what is being said by the American government these days is a program Israel cannot accept," he added.

Mr. Naveh's comments were an understated version of the verbal explosion Sharon detonated on Oct. 4 when he warned the Bush administration not to "appease the Arabs" into supporting the war coalition at Israel's expense. He cited the "dreadful mistake of 1938" when European countries "sacrificed Czechoslovakia for a convenient, temporary solution."

The peace ideas are not due to be announced for another month, according to a US official.

Ra'anan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon, said that the ideas "won't have any immediate practical implication" since the two sides will first need to implement deescalation measures outlined last spring by a US-led inquiry team before launching negotiations. He added, however ,that any US effort to impose on Israel a solution to the thorny Jerusalem issue "will not work. The city will not be redivided."

A leading Palestinian analyst warned yesterday that the US endeavor could be derailed well before then, adding that the current Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire is teetering.

"This whole thing could collapse in a minute," says Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, occupied West Bank. "Yasser Arafat is in a very fragile situation. The popularity of the Islamists is increasing. There is no sense yet of a viable political process. Every day that passes increases the fragility of Arafat's situation."

Mr. Shikaki says that the killing of a Hamas leader, Abdel Rahman Hamad, in the West Bank town of Qalqilya yesterday shows that elements in the Israeli military or government are intent on sabotaging the cease-fire. Israel, without explicitly claiming responsibility for the shooting, said Hamad was responsible for organizing a suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv discotheque in June that killed 22 people.

Mr. Gissin said Israel hopes to strengthen the cease-fire by beginning to lift army travel strictures in areas where Palestinian violence has subsided.

Many Americans were surprised at the intensity of Sharon's Oct. 4 remarks. But the comments have deep roots in his ultra-nationalist ideology. The US peacemaking push threatens to negate Sharon's vision of a 'Greater Israel,' which would include most of the biblically resonant West Bank and a united Jerusalem of complete Israeli control. This is something he has personally sought to impose since 1977 through building illegal Jewish settlements.

Palestinians view the West Bank as the heartland of the state to which they aspire. And moderate Arab opinion, to which the US ideas are to be addressed, backs the Palestinians' desire for statehood.

But there is another reason for Sharon's anxiety. US peace ideas, even general ones, could signal the beginning of the end of his tenure as prime minister by setting in motion the departure of the more moderate Labor party from the "national unity coalition."

Yossi Katz, a Labor member of the Knesset predicts the party will take up the US ideas as part of a bid to reverse its sagging popularity. "If the current cease-fire [with the Palestinian Authority] is going to be continued, than such a plan can break up the unity government and coalition," he says.

Likud allies of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who espouse an even more hawkish approach than Sharon, are already saying they would rebel if he were to flirt with the US ideas. "It would be political suicide," says Yisrael Katz, a Likud legislator close to the comeback-minded Mr. Netanyahu.

A US official said Friday that the ideas are still being drafted. They will include support for a Palestinian state, provided it is ready to live in peace with Israel, he says. The official says the ideas are to be presented by Secretary of State Colin Powell at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly next month. There will be mention of Jerusalem, but the official declined to elaborate. He said a new US envoy to the region is to be appointed.

The speech was planned before the Sept. 11 atrocities, but it has taken on "a slightly new dimension" in light of the attacks, the official said.

Shikaki says, "The administration will be hoping to create a certain trust and confidence within the ranks of Arab and Muslim allies in the war on terrorism, and the idea will be to make a very general statement at the UN that will not draw negative reaction. I don't think Arafat will be required to accept or reject. He will welcome the American involvement and the overall positions."

Katz, the Likud legislator, says Israel will not do the same. "If they go ahead with this, it will be a big mistake. There is a difference between asking us to lower our profile these days and telling us to give up on strategic and security assets. Yasser Arafat may say he is with the United States today, but who knows what he will do tomorrow?"

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