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All Eyes on Powell Mission: Will Peace Initiative Prevail?

A violence-weary Israel is marking the 54th anniversary of its independence amid uncertainty over the outcome of its bitter conflict with the Palestinians.

A day before Independence Day, Israel on Tuesday observed its annual Remembrance Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism — even as efforts were continuing to seek ways to pull back from the current crisis with the Palestinians.

All eyes were on U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell this week as pundits and the average Israeli wondered whether he would succeed in getting the two veteran enemies — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat — to step back from the brink.

Powell expressed cautious optimism Tuesday that mediation efforts between Israel and the Palestinians were making progress, but he refused to speculate whether a cease-fire agreement could be concluded before his mission ends later this week.

Powell met for about one hour Tuesday with Sharon, their third session since last Friday. Powell was also planning to see Arafat for a second time Wednesday before heading to Cairo.

Powell said Tuesday that he was looking forward to seeing Arafat after “good conversations” were conducted between American and Palestinian officials.

“We are making progress, and I look forward to furthering that progress over the next 24 hours, but I don’t want to get into specifics as to what I’ll be able to achieve and not able to achieve,” he told reporters in Jerusalem.

U.S. officials have been holding separate meetings with Israeli and Palestinian teams to come up with a statement that would express the two sides’ support for peace and pledge not to resort to violence.

It was not immediately clear whether the statements would use the term “cease-fire.”

According to some reports, the Palestinian statement, to be signed by Arafat, would condemn terror against Israelis and Palestinians, call for the creation of a Palestinian state through negotiations and vow action against terrorists.

But Israeli officials speculated that Arafat might insist on withholding the statement until Israeli troops pull out of Palestinian areas.

In a move welcomed by the U.S. administration, Sharon said Monday that Israeli troops would withdraw from Jenin and Nablus within a week.

In an interview with CNN, he called the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem more “problematic,” adding that it would take longer for Israeli troops to withdraw there.

He also dismissed Palestinian claims that Israel had carried out a “massacre,” killing 500 Palestinians during fierce fighting last week in the Jenin refugee camp. Like other Israeli officials this week, Sharon said only several dozen Palestinian gunmen were killed in the fighting, which also claimed the lives of 23 Israeli soldiers.

In a move with broad repercussions, Israeli forces on Monday arrested Marwan Barghouti, head of the Palestinians’ Tanzim militia in the West Bank.

Barghouti, who is on Israel’s wanted list for allegedly masterminding terror attacks on Israeli targets, was captured in an apartment in Ramallah.

A popular figure among Palestinians and secretary-general of Arafat’s Fatah movement, Barghouti has been considered a possible successor to Arafat. He went into hiding when Israel launched its military operation in the West Bank.

Sharon said Israel will put Barghouti on trial for supporting terrorism.

“This man is responsible for terrible acts of murder of hundreds of Israelis. He will be tried by the State of Israel,” Sharon said in an interview with Israel Radio.

Israeli security forces were on alert for possible attempts to kidnap soldiers in retaliation for Barghouti’s arrest.

The Palestinians likely will argue against the legality of Barghouti’s arrest and will demand his freedom as a precondition for diplomatic progress — and some say Palestinian terrorists will launch new attacks if he is not freed.

In a proposal aimed at breaking the diplomatic logjam, Sharon proposed to Powell on Sunday that the U.S. convene a Middle East peace conference.

Sharon proposed inviting leaders from “moderate” Arab states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco, along with Palestinian representatives. But Sharon’s insistence that Arafat not be included has many observers saying the idea will prove a non-starter.

In an effort to keep the idea alive, Powell said Monday that the conference “does not necessarily require” Arafat’s presence “to get started.”

“One model one could consider is a ministerial-level conference,” he added.

Powell discussed Sharon’s proposal during visits Monday to Beirut and Damascus.

Also on Powell’s agenda was his request that Lebanon and Syria rein in Hezbollah. Hezbollah has been launching daily cross-border attacks on Israel, which, Powell warned, could lead to an escalation of violence.

But Lebanese Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud described Hezbollah’s cross-border attacks, which focus on the Shabaa Farms border region, as a legitimate resistance to Israeli occupation.

Hezbollah and the Lebanese government claim that Shabaa Farms belongs to Lebanon, but the United Nations has rejected the claim.

Meanwhile, Israeli troops briefly entered the West Bank city of Tulkarm on Tuesday to round-up wanted Palestinians. The army described the operation as “limited,” and the troops withdrew after detaining several Palestinians.

Israel last week pulled its forces out of Tulkarm and Kalkilya under heavy pressure from the United States to end its military operation in the West Bank.

Israeli security forces were on high alert as the nation marked Remembrance Day and Independence Day.

The nation came to a standstill Tuesday when a two-minute siren sounded in memory of fallen soldiers and those who died in terrorist attacks.

The siren was followed by ceremonies at 42 military cemeteries. Since the beginning of the Zionist settlement of Israel in 1860, 21,182 people have fallen defending the ideal of a Jewish state.

Since the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, 469 Israeli soldiers and civilians have been killed.

The transition to Independence Day celebrations was marked at a beacon-lighting ceremony Tuesday evening.

While many Israeli businesses, homes and cars were festooned with flags, public celebrations were expected to be subdued.

Many Israeli cities had canceled the majority of public events because of the security situation.

But President Moshe Katsav, in an Independence Day message to Jewish communities abroad, expressed hope that Israel and the Palestinians could one day resolve their differences.

“On the 54th anniversary of the State of Israel, we are still fighting for our status and security,” Katsav wrote.

“Palestinian terrorism is an epidemic which must be fought against with determination and international cooperation. We are fighting against terrorism with faith, determination and national unity.

“Despite all the difficulties, I believe that the Palestinians and we have common interests and can attain political settlements.”

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