WASHINGTON, June 20 (JTA) Secretary of State Colin Powell will return to the Middle East next week in an attempt to help Israel and the Palestinians end violence that has been continuing despite a recent cease- fire.
“The president has asked the secretary to go to the Middle East to help secure efforts to preserve the cease-fire and to build upon it,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Wednesday.
Despite the Israeli-Palestinian agreement forged with the aid of CIA Director George Tenet last week, fighting continues in the region.
Three Israelis have been killed in attacks in the West Bank this week, while three Palestinians have been killed by Israeli soldiers.
Bush administration officials said Powell will stress that both sides need to do more to control the violence.
“We are concerned about the upsurge in the violence in recent days,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Wednesday. “We think people have to redouble their efforts.”
This will be Powell’s second trip to the Middle East since taking office, and will come during the same week that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon meets with President Bush in Washington.
The administration refused Wednesday to give details of Powell’s itinerary, but he is not expected to leave for the Middle East until after Bush and Sharon meet Tuesday.
Powell is expected to urge Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to do more to control violence, as the last few weeks have provided evidence that Arafat can control the terrorist factions that have been blamed for several of the bloodiest attacks.
Two of the three deadly attacks this week, however, were carried out by Arafat’s own Fatah Party.
Powell’s expected meeting with the Palestinian leader also will serve as an acknowledgment that Arafat has made some efforts toward quieting the situation in recent weeks.
It is a significant meeting, given that the Bush administration has refused to invite Arafat to the White House until he ends Palestinian violence. Bush told American Jewish leaders last month that inviting Arafat was a “trump card” he intended to use to his advantage.
Powell is the most senior administration official involved in the recent drive to get Israel and the Palestinian Authority back on the path of peace talks.
Tenet spent last week orchestrating a security “working plan” between the two parties, and William Burns, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, is expected in the region later this week.
“The president will continue to be as helpful as possible to play the role of facilitator, but it remains fundamentally important for all the parties in the Middle East to act to preserve the fragile cease-fire and to build upon it,” Fleischer said.
American Jewish leaders are urging Powell to press Arafat to uphold the cease-fire plan, and continue with the process laid out by the international commission chaired by former Sen. George Mitchell.
“Right now, we see continued killings,” Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said while traveling in Israel. “We can’t negotiate under these circumstances.”
The Mitchell Committee called for the cease-fire to be followed by a cooling-off period and then confidence building measures by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority to bring the sides back to the negotiating table. Those plans were laid out in more detail by Tenet.
But Powell reportedly told Israeli Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg on Tuesday that the United States believes the cooling-off period has not yet begun, because Palestinian attacks are continuing.
Bush spoke with Sharon and Arafat by telephone Wednesday. He said he told the parties that they must “continue to work in an all-out effort to bring peace.”
“His message to Chairman Arafat will be that it’s important for all parties to adhere to the cease-fire, to embrace the recommendations of the Mitchell Committee so that peace can be achieved in the region and confidence-building measures can be taken,” Fleischer said.