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Israeli Cabinet OKs peace 'road map'

Sharon, Abbas plan to meet Monday

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Cabinet gathers Sunday to debate the
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Cabinet gathers Sunday to debate the "road map" to peace.

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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- The Israeli Cabinet voted Sunday to accept the U.S.-supported "road map" to a Mideast peace agreement -- clearing the way for a series of steps that would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state within three years.

The 12-7 vote, with four abstentions, marked the first time an Israeli government has formally accepted the principle of a Palestinian state.

The vote followed a meeting that ministers in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's conservative government later described as stormy.

The Palestinian Authority accepted the plan last month after it was drafted by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, the so-called Mideast Quartet.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Sha'ath told CNN that Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas would meet Monday to discuss the road map's implementation.

"Tomorrow's meeting between the prime minister of Palestine and the prime minister of Israel will really show whether the two parties are committed, and if they are, they should put [forth] a schedule for a start of that immediate cease-fire," Sha'ath said.

The first phase of the road map involves the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian zones reoccupied during the current uprising and a freeze on settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza.

Palestinian officials are required to crack down on militant groups that have carried out attacks against Israelis.

Daniel Ayalon, Israel's ambassador to the United States, said Israel wants to see a "complete dismantling of the infrastructure of terror" by Abbas' government.

"We cannot have negotiation by day and killing us at night," Ayalon said on ABC's "This Week."

A three-way summit meeting involving Sharon, Abbas and President Bush could be called within 10 days.

A senior Bush administration official told CNN that the White House would not agree to a summit until it sees initial steps taken by both sides -- a Palestinian crackdown on militants and the lifting of Israeli economic restrictions.

Nevertheless, a Bush administration advance team left Sunday morning for Egypt to begin preparations in the event a summit is called, an administration official told CNN. The team is also set to go to Jordan, which Bush might visit early next month.

Cabinet votes against refugees' return

Sharon initially was reluctant to endorse the road map but did so Friday after Washington said all of Israel's concerns would be addressed in the implementation of the plan.

One of the main potential sticking points is the Palestinian demand that refugees have the "right of return" to ancestral land inside Israel.

In a separate 16-1 vote, the Cabinet said Israel would not accept the return of Palestinian refugees in any peace agreement.

"Israel will never agree to the return of Palestinian refugees to the territory of the state of Israel," Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told reporters Sunday.

"That would be the end of the state of Israel, and I think here there is practically complete consensus among all citizens of the state."

The Cabinet issued a statement after Sunday's vote saying all Israeli concerns, including Israel's position on returning refugees, "will be enforced as the road map is being implemented."

But Sha'ath said the statement was "irrelevant" at this point because the road map specifies the issue will be discussed during the third and final phase of talks.

"This is not the time. When we get to it, we'll discuss it," Sha'ath said.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who lost a re-election bid in 2001 to Sharon after the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000, told CNN: "For a government led by Sharon and the right wing, [the vote] is very meaningful and, in a way, promising, but we should calibrate our expectation.

"It still has to be proven that the Palestinian side is ready, beyond the opening gestures and ceremonies, [to] move forward ... and crack [down] on Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, and put an end, eventually, to terror against Israel."

The United States considers those three militant groups to be terrorist organizations.

Sunday's step toward peace talks come after Washington pressured both sides and Bush said he would play an active role in the process.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who Washington said did not do enough to prevent terror attacks, was persuaded to relinquish control of Palestinian negotiations -- a role taken on by Abbas after he was elected prime minister.

Sharon agreed to put the road map to a Cabinet vote after the United States said it shared Israeli concerns about the proposed peace plan and would "address them fully and seriously in the implementation."

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