Israel's Likud Vote Major
Blow To Peace Talks
By Angus MacSwan

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's ruling Likud Party dealt a further blow to prospects for Middle East peace talks by voting late on Sunday against any future establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
The Likud vote came at a heated party convention in Tel Aviv and marked a victory for former Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a looming battle for the party leadership.
Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said the vote placed in danger any hope of an agreement. He said it showed the true intentions of Israel and would increase frustrations of Palestinians locked in a violent 19-month-old struggle against Israeli rule.
"How many Palestinians will wake up tomorrow to say 'we have nothing to lose'?" he told CNN. "I hope it will be an eye-opener to (U.S.) President Bush."
Reacting to the Likud Party vote, the United States said it will continue to support the idea of a Palestinian state.
Asked about the vote, U.S. National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack referred to President Bush's vision of Israel and a Palestinian state living in peace.
"That is his vision for the region and we will continue working toward that vision," McCormack said, declining further comment.
After keeping the Middle East strife at an arm's length during much of his presidency, Bush last month reversed course and took a much more active role in seeking to end the violence and to nudge the parties toward negotiations.
In his April 4 speech laying out the change in policy, Bush said: "The outlines of a just settlement are clear: two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side, in peace and security."
The vote strengthened the right-wing of Israel's Likud-led coalition government, which includes the leftist Labour Party of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
Sharon had told the assembled party members Palestinians must end violence and reform their political structures before he would allow any talk of them establishing a state.
The party preferred the harder message delivered by Netanyahu, who vowed: "A state with all the rights of a state, this cannot be, not under (Palestinian leader Yasser) Arafat, nor under another leadership, not today, nor tomorrow."
Sharon described the vote as "a dangerous one for the state of Israel, that will complicate its diplomatic efforts." Both sides are considering a U.S. proposal for a conference in the summer to try to restart the peace process.
"The end game is now clear," Palestinian negotiator Erekat said. "This war is not against terror but to continue ruling 3.3 million Palestinians. It is very dangerous and I hope it will be an eye opener to the world to show them who we are dealing with."
Violence has racked the area since the Palestinians started a revolt against Israeli rule in September 2000. At least 1,347 Palestinians and 474 Israelis have been killed since then.
The military front was quieter on Sunday with the scrapping of an operation in the Gaza Strip that had been planned following a Palestinian suicide bombing near Tel Aviv on Tuesday which killed 15 people.
Israeli correspondents had reported that some generals had opposed a Gaza operation, warning of heavy Israeli army and Palestinian civilian casualties.
In the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Christian Palestinians flocked to the Church of the Nativity to pray there for the first time since the end of a 38-day Israeli siege of Palestinian militants inside.
Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, envoy of Pope John Paul, and Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah led the prayers, urging Israelis and Palestinians to work for peace.
In Cyprus, 13 militants who were transferred there from the church in a deal taking them into exile waited to find out which countries would accept them. Cyprus said it wanted them to leave by Wednesday.
European Union foreign ministers were expected to decide on Monday which of the bloc's member states would take them.
The Likud vote also signaled a domestic battle for Sharon as Netanyahu attempts to win the leadership of the party before general elections scheduled for next year.
Netanyahu, putting forward his position, said that for peace, Israel needed complete territorial control, a buffer zone to restrict movements of Palestinians, and to expel or dispose of Arafat.
"It is clear now that we cannot reach any kind of solution at all with the Palestinians," Netanyahu said.
Sharon himself has long been reluctant to deal with the issue of a Palestinian state. He told the meeting: "We do not deal at all with the Palestinian state now. It does not stand on the agenda of the day."
He enjoyed popular approval from many Israelis for reacting to suicide bombings and attacks against Israeli citizens with tough military force, including a crushing offensive in the West Bank last month.
He received an approval rating of 68 percent in the last poll published on Friday.
But 57 percent of those polled for a survey published in the mass circulation Maariv newspaper also supported a land-for-peace deal put forward by Saudi Arabia.


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