Despite strong backing from the U.S. president, Israel's right-wing ruling Likud Party yesterday rejected a controversial plan by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to unilaterally pull all Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip in exchange for keeping all but four of 120 Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
The roughly 60-percent vote to reject came after a pregnant Israeli settler and her four daughters were killed by Palestinian gunmen in Gaza. Another Gaza settler, Rivka Goldschmidt, said the vote was a victory for the Jewish settler movement.
But if the vote was a victory for settlers, it was a defeat for Bush.
Sparking Palestinian and Arab outrage, Bush had backed the plan at an 14 April news conference with Sharon. He then poured fuel on the firestorm of criticism by stating that Israel could not be expected to give up all occupied land or accept a return of Palestinian refugees to what is now the Jewish state.
No U.S. president ever put forth such conditions, which have long been considered an open point for negotiation between Palestinians and Israelis. Speaking yesterday, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei said, "What concerns us is to preserve the rights of our people, the right of return, self-determination, the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. This is our concern."
U.S. newspapers, including "The Washington Post" and "The Los Angeles Times," said that in rejecting Sharon's plan, the Likud Party had dealt a major blow to Bush's Middle East policy. They said Bush could hardly afford it after weeks of setbacks in the region, including a scandal over alleged abuse and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers that has further damaged America's image in the Arab world.
The Bush administration had argued that Sharon's plan could break the stalemate after three and a half years of fighting between Israelis and Palestinians by showing that Israel is willing to make important concessions and abandon some settlements.
But that's never how Arabs or Palestinians understood the plan, says Yossi Mekelberg, an analyst with London's Royal Institute of International Affairs.
"The way that this was understood by the Palestinians, in Arab capitals, was that this was a dictate coming from Washington and Jerusalem. It was unilateral; it was without consultations of the Palestinians and the Palestinian leadership. They don't see that as a first step to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. They looked at it as a dictate."
Sharon has vowed to stay in office and continue to pursue his plan. But analysts say he is weaker after failing to win over Likud members who refuse to give up any lands seized in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Israeli Minister Without Portfolio Uzi Landau said those Likud members saw the Gaza pullout as a reward to militants.
"The results simply say the vast majority of the Likud members are not going to support a plan which is basically going to boost up terror. This is the major message."
The White House says it still supports the plan despite the vote, which was nonbinding. Washington is expected to push for support for the plan tomorrow when foreign ministers of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia -- the so-called "Quartet" of nations seeking to broker peace in the Middle East -- meet in New York.
Qurei today urged Washington to reconsider its support for Sharon's plan, as well as its months-long insistence that the Palestinian Authority rein in militants before any moves to resume peace talks can take place.
He also urged the United States and the international community to work on reviving peace talks and called for an international conference to push ahead with the "road map," a peace plan devised by the Quartet that calls for reciprocal confidence measures leading to an independent Palestinian state.
Stalled by violence, the road map has been eclipsed of late by the Sharon plan.
Mekelberg of the Royal Institute of International Affairs is pessimistic about the chances of any progress on Middle East peace being made between now and November, when the United States has presidential elections.
Mekelberg says it is unclear Sharon's government will even survive its stunning defeat. But echoing critics in Europe and the Arab world, the analyst urged Washington to revive its efforts of last year to promote the roadmap and resume talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
"What needs to be done is for the Quartet to revive the roadmap for peace and to encourage bilateral negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, with the support of the Quartet," he said. "The United States should move to understand better the Palestinian side, the European Union should move to understand better the Israeli side and to come with some united front to help the Israelis and the Palestinians to resolve the conflict."