The Likud’s vote will not have an immediate affect on Israeli government policy, but it is likely to add another obstacle in the peace process.
Palestinian spokesman Saeb Erekat said the vote was “a real slap in the face” for President Bush, who has spoken in favor of a Palestinian state.
Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sharon’s political rival in the Likud Party, pushed to hold the vote last night and accused the prime minister of being “soft” on Palestinian terrorism.
Before the vote, Sharon delivered a speech in which he criticized the Palestinian leadership and said Israel would not consider an autonomous Palestinian state until serious reforms are made within the Palestinian Authority.
He said the Palestinian Authority “must reform itself at its base in all areas – security, economic, legal and social – and it must take responsibility over itself.”
Conservative party delegates, who have urged Sharon to use force against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, booed the 73-year-old prime minister.
As Sharon left the party conference, Netanyahu began his address to cheers from Likud delegates.
“It is clear now that we cannot reach any kind of solution at all with the Palestinians,” Netanyahu told the delegates.
An independent Palestinian government could be possible, he said, “but a state with all the rights of a state, this cannot be, not under Arafat, nor under another leadership, not today nor tomorrow.”
Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters that he spoke with Sharon after the vote, and that the Israeli leader remained committed to an eventual Palestinian state.
“I don’t think it changes Prime Minister Sharon’s basic thinking about this subject where he was inclined to move forward to a Palestinian state at some point in the future,” Powell said.
Touring West Bank cities today for the first time in five months, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat brushed off the Likud vote.
“To Jerusalem we are headed. Jerusalem is the capital of our independent state of Palestine, never mind who agrees or does not,” Arafat told a crowd in Nablus.
While Sharon’s approval ratings continue to remain high among the Israeli public, some analysts said last night’s meeting could signal waning support within his own Likud party and might pave the way for Sharon’s replacement by Netanyahu in the upcoming elections.
Meanwhile, an Israeli offensive into Gaza, the stronghold of the militant group Hamas, was postponed, despite a buildup of Israeli tanks and troops near the Palestinian-controlled territory.
Sharon and Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer decided to put off the offensive, saying it would not achieve their goals since many Palestinian militants of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad had already fled the region.
“I’m willing to give a chance and wait,” Ben-Eliezer told CNN. “We are ready to give any chance to the peace process.”
The defense minister also added that Israeli forces will remain near the Gaza Strip, and could be reactivated for an assault if necessary.