In the face of scathing criticism from his own right-wing party, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday staunchly defended his support for the latest Middle East peace effort.
"Ruling three and a half million Palestinians cannot go on indefinitely," he declared.
Sharon hit back at his critics in the Likud Party with language that sounded as if it were coming straight from Israel's liberal peace camp.
"You may not like the word, but what's happening is occupation," he told Likud members of Parliament.
"Holding 3.5 million Palestinians is a bad thing for Israel, for the Palestinians and for the Israeli economy. We have to end this subject without risking our security," he said.
Sharon's rightist Cabinet on Sunday gave conditional approval to the Middle East peace plan, known as the road map. The vote energized diplomatic efforts but also brought a firestorm of criticism from right-wing Israelis, who accused the prime minister of plunging the country into a process that they view as a potential disaster.
While Sharon debated with his traditional allies, the Israelis and Palestinians pressed ahead with preparations for top-level meetings intended to build on the current diplomatic momentum.
Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas are expected to meet again this week, probably today, diplomats said. They are expected to join US President George W. Bush for a summit meeting in the region, probably next week.
Sharon argued Sunday that Israel had no real option but to accept the measures outlined in the peace plan. After a stormy session, the cabinet voted 12 to seven in favor, with four abstentions.
The Cabinet also expressed Israel's numerous reservations with the plan, which could complicate efforts to put it into effect. The Palestinians say the road map must be put into effect as is, fearing that attempts to rework it will lead to long delays, and ultimately to failure.
"The road to hell is filled with good intentions," Michael Ratzon, a Likud member of Parliament, told Sharon. "This document is Israel's surrender to Palestinian terrorism."
David Levy, a Likud lawmaker and a former foreign minister, said the road map included "the worst things ever faced by the government of Israel."
"With all due respect we are talking about a cardinal matter, the existence and future of Israel," Levy added.
One Likud legislator after another lashed out at the Cabinet decision. The intense debate illustrated how difficult it will be for Israelis and Palestinians to move forward with the road map, with hard-liners on both sides seeking to undermine it.
Sharon stressed that he was a reluctant supporter of the plan. The Palestinians -- ?not to speak of the Israeli left -- ?say they are deeply skeptical about his intentions to engage in serious negotiations.
But Sharon's impassioned language on Monday indicated that he viewed the grinding Middle East conflict as inflicting great damage on Israel. His remarks also suggested that he was prepared to take political risks and to alienate his supporters in hopes of finding a way out, even if he has serious misgivings about the plan.
"I don't know whether we'll succeed, but I'm telling you in the clearest way that I'll make every effort to reach a diplomatic arrangement because I believe that it's important for Israel," Sharon said.