JERUSALEM (Jun. 28)
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Middle East visit this week was something of a balancing act — conveying understanding for the Israeli demand for an end to violence while addressing Palestinian demands to resume the diplomatic process.
After a series of separate meetings Thursday with Israeli and Palestinian officials, Powell announced an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on a timeline for advancing toward peace negotiations.
He also endorsed the idea of outside observers to supervise the cease-fire, though he later appeared to backtrack.
Just as Powell was making his diplomatic rounds, however, Palestinian gunmen shot and killed an Israeli woman and wounded another on a West Bank road.
Katya Weintrop, 27, was the seventh Israeli killed since a U.S.-brokered cease-fire took effect June 13.
The slaying took place hours before Powell and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon held talks about the fragile cease-fire. A group affiliated with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement claimed responsibility for the attack.
The group said it was avenging the death of a Fatah activist in a telephone booth explosion in Nablus earlier this week. The Palestinians accuse Israel of being behind the blast, but Israeli officials deny the charge.
Some observers thought the slaying would harden Sharon’s negotiating stance to the point where no agreement was possible.
But at a news conference with Powell on Thursday, Sharon gave his backing for the timetable, saying a six-week cooling off period would begin after a full week passes with no violence.
In his remarks, Sharon called for “an absolute stop to terrorist acts, violence and incitement.”
“When there is total quiet, there will be a seven day test-period, to see how the Palestinian Authority upholds its commitments.
“After the seven day test-period, we can begin a period of six weeks of cooling off, when there must be absolute quiet,” Sharon said. “If there is, we can move to the next phase, of confidence-building gestures, which I won’t detail right now.”
Powell, who met earlier in the day with Arafat in Ramallah, confirmed that the timeline outlined by Sharon is “consistent with what I discussed with” Arafat.
Powell said it ultimately would be up to Israel to judge whether the desired quiet had been attained during the seven-day test period.
“Obviously now that it has been announced and we have talked about the seven-day period, the whole world will be watching it,” Powell said.
“But most important of all, the prime minister and his colleagues will be watching it, since they are the ones most directly involved.
“They will at the end of the day have to make a judgment as to whether or not it is quiet and by what definition. It is the two parties that will have to decide together that we can move forward into the cooling-off period.”
Powell condemned the slaying earlier in the day, saying it underscored the need for the two sides to end the violence and begin the slow process of reconciliation.
“We condemn it, we deplore it, it is outrageous, it is a crime. Those responsible for it should be condemned. They should be brought to justice,” Powell said. “And we have communicated this point of view to Chairman Arafat.”
The two women were traveling in separate cars near the West Bank settlement of Ganim when they were ambushed. The gunmen apparently fled by car to nearby Palestinian-controlled areas around the city of Jenin.
A senior Palestinian security source in Jenin said Arafat had given orders to arrest those behind the shooting.
The number of violent incidents has subsided since the sides accepted a cease-fire agreement mediated by CIA Director George Tenet on June 13, but the quiet is relative: Israel has suffered more than 100 attacks during those two weeks.
In Washington this week, Sharon and President Bush disagreed over how to proceed.
Sharon insists on an absolute halt to violence before beginning the cooling-off period proposed by an international commission led by former Sen. George Mitchell. Bush called for a more “realistic” approach, reflecting the U.S. interest in advancing more quickly toward the diplomatic stage.
The Palestinians are wary that Israel is seeking excuses to delay the political process.
At a news conference Thursday with Powell in Ramallah, Arafat reiterated his call for the two sides to begin implementing confidence-building measures stipulated in the Mitchell plan.
The plan calls on Israel to freeze all settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It calls on the Palestinians to arrest terrorists, collect illegal weapons and cease anti-Israel incitement.
Sharon has repeatedly stated that such measures will begin only after a period of quiet, while the Palestinians want them to begin even before violence ceases.
The Palestinians also have called for the deployment of an international observer force to monitor the cease-fire.
During his stopover in Ramallah, Powell endorsed the need for some manner of monitoring when the sides reach the confidence-building phase, but refrained from elaborating on what form it might take.
“I think as we get into the confidence-building measure phase there will be a need for monitors and observers to see what’s happening on the ground,” Powell said.
“Now, what the nature of that monitoring or observer regime might look like, who might be members of it, we have not yet come to any conclusion on that. But I think there is clear understanding of the need for some kind of monitoring observer function performed by some group,” he said.
Israel strongly opposes the stationing of international observers in the territories.
At the news conference with Sharon, Powell was asked by reporters to clarify his earlier remarks.
He stressed that he was not referring to imposition of an “outside” body and that any observers would be agreed upon by the two sides.
Powell added that the matter had not been raised in his discussion with Arafat, but had been posed as a question at the news conference afterwards.
In Washington, State Department officials backed away from Powell’s original statement.
Echoing what Powell told Israeli reporters, the officials told American Jewish leaders that Powell was not calling for an international monitoring force, but only noting the utility of monitors later in the process.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told JTA that Bush administration officials told him the monitors would include representatives from the United States, Israel and the Palestinian Authority — not the United Nations or European Union, which Israel claims have a pronounced pro-Palestinian bias.
“It doesn’t break any new ground,” Hoenlein said. “Powell may have been misunderstood, but nothing is imminent.”