Israel's Cabinet approved a US-backed Middle East peace plan yesterday, 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 US pressure, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reluctantly embraced the plan Friday after Washington assured him publicly it would take into account Israel's objections to some parts of it.
Sharon told his Cabinet ministers during the six-hour meeting yesterday 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 yesterday.
The 23-member Cabinet voted 12 to 7 to approve the plan. There were four abstentions.
Commentator Hemi Shalev, writing in the daily Maariv before the meeting, called the vote a "historic decision that no left wing government dared to make, which mandates the establishment of a Palestinian state."
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 Israelis must implement their obligations without preconditions and without any changes."
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, both of 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 Cabinet meeting to appeal for their support.
Uzi Landau, a Likud minister opposed to the plan, told Israel Radio that Washington's assurances were a "sugar coated cyanide pill."
Even some of those who voted in support of the plan yesterday said they had serious reservations about the road map, but did not want to alienate the US.
"I think the document is not a good one, but we have to choose when we battle the US, and now is not the time," Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Israel Radio.
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 US requests, but felt there was little chance Israel would be forced to make painful concessions because he expected the Palestinians would fail to carry out their obligations under the plan.
While the US 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 Palestinians have demanded Israel accept the road map unconditionally.