JERUSALEM, Feb. 26 (JTA) – If U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell made anything clear during his visit this week to the Israel and the Palestinian- controlled city of Ramallah, it was that things have changed since President Clinton left office.
First, there was the duration of his visit – one day – with Powell’s meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders wedged in between stop-offs in Egypt and Jordan.
Second, there was the absence of U.S. proposals – a hallmark of the Clinton era – aimed at ending the more than five months of Israeli-Palestinian violence and forging a final peace accord.
While Powell called on both sides to end the violence and return to negotiations – and pointedly told Israel to lift the economic sanctions it has imposed on the Palestinian Authority – he had little else to suggest to the two sides in his public comments other than that it is up to them to make the “hard decisions” that will enable them to return to the road of peace.
Since President Bush took office in late January, U.S. officials have said that while they will continue to pursue Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, it is but one facet of their overall Middle East policy.
Indeed, Powell’s trip to the Middle East – his first since becoming the top U.S. diplomat – appeared to be less about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than getting Arab support for U.S. policies aimed at containing Iraq.
Powell’s regional tour included a stop in Kuwait to attend celebrations marking the 10th anniversary of the end of the Persian Gulf War.
During meetings with Arab leaders this week, Powell discussed the need to keep sanctions against Iraq in place – first imposed in the wake of the war – in order to deal with the threat posed by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
In fact, during a joint news conference with Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon on Sunday, Powell stressed that Saddam had to be restrained.
Citing German intelligence reports that Baghdad might have nuclear weapons in three years, Powell said, “We have to make sure that we do everything we can to contain” Saddam.
As Powell arrived in Syria for talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad, a state-run Syrian newspaper sharply criticized the emphasis on Iraq.
A front-page editorial accused Powell of ignoring the killing of Palestinians by Israeli forces.
During their meeting, Powell and Assad discussed the peace process, sanctions against Iraq and the oil it imports from Iraq through a pipeline to the Mediterranean.
The United States believes that Syria, which is seeking a seat on the U.N. Security Council next year, will halt the imports, thereby complying with U.N. sanctions against Iraq, a senior U.S. official told Reuters.
The difficulty of putting an end to Israeli-Palestinian violence was underscored by several incidents that took place during Powell’s visit.
As Powell was urging the two sides to take steps to stop the cycle of violence, two Israeli settlers were wounded in separate shooting attacks in the West Bank. The commander of Israeli forces in the area said it is possible the two attacks were linked.
He noted that Powell’s visit could have given Palestinian groups greater motivation to carry out such attacks.
After meeting Sunday in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, Powell called on Israel to lift the economic “siege” it had imposed on the areas under Palestinian control since violence erupted last September.
Later Sunday, Israel announced that it was taking a step aimed at implementing at least a part of Powell’s requests: The Israeli army lifted roadblocks it had set up last week that had divided the Gaza Strip into two.
For his part, Arafat used his joint news conference with Powell to call on the United States to ensure that Israel pick up negotiations from where they left off under outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
Barak’s purported willingness to give the Palestinians control over parts of eastern Jerusalem during last July’s failed Camp David summit led to the defections of several coalition partners – and was a major factor in his defeat at the hands of Sharon in the nation’s Feb. 6 elections for prime minister.
Barak, seconded by Clinton, has said the proposals aired at Camp David were no longer on the table.
But Arafat maintained Sunday that “no government can write off what the previous government did.”
Earlier in the day, after meeting with Powell, Sharon outlined his own demand.
“One thing should be clear: Israel will not negotiate under pressure of terror and violence,” Sharon said at his joint news conference with the U.S. secretary of state.
Sharon denied that any negotiations were under way with the Palestinians. But he acknowledged that there existed “channels of communication” for conveying messages to the Palestinians.
During Powell’s meetings Sunday, more than 2,000 Palestinians protested in Gaza against his visit. The protesters burned pictures of Powell and called on him to go home.
Throughout the West Bank, Palestinian shopkeepers heeded demands by militant groups to protest Powell’s visit and closed their shops early.
In another development, a Palestinian woman accused of using the Internet to lure Israeli teen-ager Ofir Rahum to his death admitted to planning to kidnap him, but said she did not intend to kill him.
The Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement indicating that Amana Mona told investigators she had communicated with several Israelis who had expressed anti-Palestinian sentiments. As a result, she said, she decided to kidnap one of them to send a message to the world about the deaths of young Palestinians in the ongoing violence.
On Sunday, the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot published a photograph of Rahum’s headstone, in the shape of a computer terminal, which his family said symbolized the importance it played in the teen’s life.