Sharon on collision course with America
New US proposals on Palestine are anathema to hardline leader
Suzanne Goldenberg in Jerusalem
Washington's new initiative in the Middle East threatens to transform the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, from a Bush administration ally into an unyielding obstacle. It could also threaten his national unity government.
The Bush administration's initiative for the Middle East, which the secretary of state Colin Powell had been due to unveil before it was shelved because of the September 11 attacks - envisages Jerusalem as a shared capital for an Israeli and a Palestinian state.
This represents a dramatic departure for a Republican administration and is anathema for Mr Sharon, who has sworn never to yield any ground in the holy city, and who does not believe in a final peace settlement, but rather a series of interim deals.
Aides for Mr Sharon made it clear yesterday that he would never countenance Israel yielding control over Arab East Jerusalem, which it has occupied since the 1967 war.
"The prime minister's vision is very clear," said Dore Gold, a foreign affairs adviser to Mr Sharon. "Jerusalem must remain united, and under the sovereignty of Israel, and the experiences of the last couple of months enforces that view among Israelis."
Mr Sharon is likely to oppose other elements of the peace plan just as strenuously - putting him out of step with a US administration that is facing pressure from its Arab allies to bring a final settlement to the Middle East.
Behind the tough posture, however, there is real nervousness around Mr Sharon for the future of his national unity government. A decade ago,the US's coalition building efforts during the Gulf war made the hardline Israeli leader then, Yitzhak Shamir, appear increasingly out of step with the times. Voters abandoned him, and he lost elections in 1992.
Ten years later, Mr Sharon is in an even more precarious situation, trapped between extreme rightwing partners in his national unity coalition - who are calling on the army to wipe out Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority - and the Labour statesman, Shimon Peres, who is pursuing talks for a ceasefire in the intifada.
The US initiative threatens to push Mr Sharon ever closer to the day when he realises his hardline notions of accommodation with the Palestinians are simply unworkable.
"The US is sending a very clear message to the rightwing in Israel that anybody who thinks they can ally with us in order to prevent the Palestinians from moving towards their envisaged state has no one to rely on," said Ron Pundak, an Israeli historian who was involved in the peace process in the early 1990s.
"It means that if Mr Sharon was thinking of suggesting a solution to the Palestinians which was short of the American guidelines, then he can longer do so. There can not be any negotiations based on less than this."
Mr Powell's ideas, which were leaked to the Boston Globe and confirmed by Israeli officials and foreign diplomats yesterday, call for a "viable Palestinian homeland".
That is worlds away from Mr Sharon's vision of a truncated Palestinian entity, patched together from isolated cantons, and amounting to barely 40% of the West Bank - the amount of territory under Palestinian control today.
However, the proposals also call for preserving the Jewish nature of the Israeli state. That means the US will not support a wholesale return of more than 3m registered Palestinian refugees to Israel, instead favouring compensation packages or resettlement within the boundaries of the future Palestinian state.
Although the Bush administration's ideas shadow those of the previous administration, diplomats say they differ from President Clinton's proposals for the Middle East in several key aspects.
Most importantly, the state department did not consult Israel before drafting its initiative, a departure from the days of the Clinton administration when America's Middle East envoy, Dennis Ross, worked in tandem with Israeli negotiators, prompting Palestinian accusations of bias.
"It is a marked departure from standard operating procedure," said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian legislature from Jerusalem and spokeswoman for the Arab League. "This is the first time that it is not basically an Israeli paper given an American seal of approval."
The proposals are also careful to avoid detail on Jerusalem, and make no mention of the old city, or its holy sites, deliberately avoiding the micro-management that many see as a root cause of Mr Clinton's failure to broker a peace deal.
Despite the lack of detail, however, details of the plan are believed to have triggered Mr Sharon's astonishing outburst last week in which he accused the Bush administration of sacrificing Israel to appease Arab states, likening Washington's coalition-building efforts to Neville Chamberlain selling out Czechoslovakia to Hitler in 1938.
Although Mr Sharon later said he regretted the insult, it continues to rankle.