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Israel´s Sharon Under Pressure at Home Amid U.S. Rift (REUTERS) By Jeffrey Heller JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 12/05/03 11:34 AM ET) Source: http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=topNews&storyID=3946260
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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon´s public approval rating sank to an all-time low on Friday amid a rare rift with Israel´s main ally, the United States, over an unofficial peace plan he opposes.
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Stinging Sharon with a veiled rebuke, President Bush threw his weight on Thursday behind a meeting Secretary of State Colin Powell was to hold on Friday with the co-authors of the symbolic peace pact known as the Geneva Accord.
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"I think it´s productive," Bush said of the proposal by leading Israeli dove Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian information minister Yasser Abed Rabbo.
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The pact has emerged in the vacuum of a stalled U.S-backed peace "road map" amid Israeli public pressure on Sharon to find a way out of three years of violence and recession.
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A Maariv newspaper poll found 33 percent of Israelis were satisfied with Sharon´s performance while 59 percent were not. It was his lowest rating since his re-election in February.
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Sharon´s popularity in Israel has slipped steadily since the collapse in August of a cease-fire Palestinian militants declared in June shattered a sense of security that had begun returning.
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Under the Geneva deal, Israel would give up West Bank and Gaza territories occupied in the 1967 Middle East war to Palestinians to set up a state, also the end goal of a U.S.-backed "road map" that Bush reaffirmed in his remarks.
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But unlike the road map, it also mandates removal of most Jewish settlements on occupied land -- seen by Sharon as vital to Israeli security -- and gives Israel the power to decide how many Palestinian refugees of wars since 1948 to take back.
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Hundreds of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip protested against the accord for what they see as the surrendering of refugees´ claim to a right of return to Israel. In Nablus, marchers burned effigies of the two co-authors.
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Israeli government spokesman Avi Pazner played down the spat with the United States. "The only stamp of approval from Washington...is for the road map," he said.
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Beilin told Israel Radio he hoped Bush´s interest in the Geneva initiative would persuade more Israelis to back it.
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The Maariv poll also showed the launch of the accord on Monday had failed to rally support for the plan among Israelis. It found 29 percent backed the pact, compared with 27 percent before its formal unveiling, and 45 percent opposed it.
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But despite signs that support for Sharon at home and at the White House was ebbing over frustration with deadlocked peacemaking, Palestinian cease-fire talks in Cairo held out hope for shaking up the situation. The talks could lead to the first meeting of Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie.
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Lending his voice to comments by Israeli leaders on possible unilateral moves should peacemaking fail, Sharon´s deputy, Ehud Olmert, appeared to propose a wider pullback from occupied West Bank lands than the prime minister has suggested.
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He told the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper Israel and any occupied land it retains should have a combined population 80 percent Jewish and 20 percent Arab to guarantee the survival of a Jewish state. Palestinians seek total withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
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"I am not going to get into detailing the border line. "(But) these borders will certainly not be identical to those of the greater Land of Israel," Olmert said, referring to West Bank lands that right- wingers claim as a Jewish biblical birthright. (© Reuters 2003 12/05/03)
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