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Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is expected to meet with his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), within the next two days, after the Israeli cabinet formally approved the U.S.-backed road map for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement yesterday.

The cabinet approved the map - a three-phase plan that calls for a settlement freeze and an end to terror attacks in the first stage, a Palestinian state with temporary borders in the second and a final-status agreement by 2005 - by a vote of 12-7, with four abstentions, at the end of a stormy six-hour debate.

The White House applauded the decision, as an "important step forward." But a senior U.S. official said that despite Washington's public commitment to "fully and seriously address" Israel's 14 reservations to the map - without which Sharon could not have mustered the necessary cabinet support - this promise did not mean that all of Israel's demands would be met.

Abbas also welcomed the decision, terming it a "positive and important step," and Palestinian officials said that in its wake, a Sharon-Abbas meeting to discuss implementation of the map was likely in the next two days.

However, Abbas added, "the real test will be implementation of all parts of the map - all its stages and conditions - by means of close and effective supervision. The Israeli reservations to the map are not part of the map and are not relevant to its implementation, and they are not acceptable to the Palestinians."

Sharon opened yesterday's cabinet meeting with a dramatic appeal to the ministers. "The Palestinian state is not the dream of my life, but looking ahead, it is not right for Israel to rule over three and a half million Palestinians," he said. "I understand the ideology, as someone who knows every hill and valley, but we need to find a solution for future generations."

He also stressed the economics of the decision. "There is a direct connection between the diplomatic realm and the economic realm," he said. "The more we progress in the diplomatic process, the more the economic situation will improve."

Nevertheless, he was forced to accept many amendments to his draft resolution in order to muster a majority, including an unconditional rejection of any "right of return" for Palestinian refugees to Israel.

And even with these concessions, he managed to obtain votes in favor from only 12 of the 23 cabinet members: the five Shinui ministers plus seven ministers from his own Likud Party. Four Likud ministers abstained - Benjamin Netanyhau, Limor Livnat, Tzachi Hanegbi and Danny Naveh - and three others voted against: Uzi Landau, Yisrael Katz and Natan Sharansky. The other four votes against came from the two National Union ministers and the two National Religious Party ministers.

With formal approval in hand, all sides are now focusing on how to promote the map's implementation. The senior U.S. official said Washington was assembling a small team that may go to the region to help the Israelis and Palestinians work on security cooperation.

The cabinet statement

A. The government of Israel [on] Sunday 25 May 2003 considered the prime minister's statement on the road map, as well as Israel's comments on its implementation. Following its deliberations, the government, by a majority vote, resolved:

Based on the 23 May 2003 statement of the United States government, in which the United States committed to fully and seriously address Israel's comments to the road map during the implementation phase, the prime minister announced on 23 May 2003 that Israel has agreed to accept the steps set out in the road map.

The government of Israel affirms the prime minister's announcement, and resolves that all of Israel's comments, as addressed in the administration's statement, will be implemented in full during the implementation phase of the road map.

A list of the comments forwarded by Israel for the review of the administration in the United States has been attached to this decision.

B. The Government also resolved, concerning the issue of the refugees, as follows:

The Government of Israel today accepted the steps set out in the road map.

The Government of Israel expresses its hope that the political process that will commence, in accordance with the 24 June 2002 speech of President Bush, will bring security, peace and reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Government of Israel further clarifies that, both during and subsequent to the political process, the resolution of the issue of the refugees will not include their entry into or settlement within the State of Israel.