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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Israel's Cabinet Approves Road Map

JERUSALEM -- Israel's Cabinet approved a U.S.-backed Middle East peace plan Sunday, recognizing for the first time the Palestinians' right to establish an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"It was a historic day," Cabinet minister Tsipi Livni said. "It was not an easy vote for a right-wing coalition. Maybe it's a sign of hope."

The Palestinians accepted last month the three-phase "road map" to peace, which envisions a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by 2005.

Under strong U.S. pressure, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reluctantly embraced the plan Friday after Washington assured him it would take into account Israel's objections to parts of it.

Sharon told his Cabinet ministers during the six-hour meeting Sunday they needed to approve the plan to pull the nation out of its economic recession. He also reassured them he would not back away from any of the government's objections, participants said.

"The time has come to say yes to the Americans, the time has come to divide this land between us and the Palestinians," Sharon was quoted as saying in the Yediot Ahronot daily Sunday.

The 23-member Cabinet voted 12 to 7 in favor of the plan with four abstentions.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Sharon could meet as early as Monday to discuss their next move, a Palestinian official said on condition of anonymity. The vote could also clear the way for the two leaders to hold a planned summit with U.S. President George W. Bush to kick off the plan.

Palestinian officials cautiously welcomed the vote. "We look positively on this decision. This is what the Palestinian Authority was asking for since we received the road map," Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr said.

The vote met with strong opposition within Sharon's four-party coalition, consisting of his Likud party, the moderate Shinui party and two right wing blocs, the National Union and the National Religious Party, which oppose the plan.

Both parties said they planned to remain in the coalition. "Israel has taken a very dangerous step," said Effi Eitam, head of the National Religious Party.

Sharon faced resistance even within Likud and met with his party's ministers before the meeting to garner support.

Even some who voted in support of the plan Sunday said they had serious reservations about the road map, but did not want to alienate the United States.

It was not clear whether Sharon's decision to go along with the road map was just a tactical move. Israeli media quoted Sharon's advisers as saying Sharon did not want to be seen as turning down U.S. requests, but felt there was little chance Israel would have to make painful concessions because the Palestinians would likely fail to meet their obligations.

While the U.S. government said it would take into account Sharon's objections to the plan, it also has promised the Palestinians not to change the road map.

The Cabinet also affirmed Israel's objections to more than a dozen points of the plan, including a provision to discuss the fate of Palestinian refugees. The Palestinians have insisted Israel accept the road map unconditionally.

The road map's first phase calls for Palestinians to rein in militants and Israeli troops to withdraw from Palestinian towns. Sharon has said a Palestinian state is inevitable. Israel has said it would only begin implementing the plan after the Palestinians crack down on militias; Abbas has refused to counter militants until the road map is adopted.