JERUSALEM (May. 11)
For those who have been following the Middle East for the past few years, the scene might have seemed all-too-familiar: U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell visits the region and attempts to prod Israelis and Palestinians to take up yet another peace plan.
But both sides put the onus on the other, and violence rages in the background.
If his public comments are any indication, Powell’s message during his talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas was clear: The time has come to act.
He called on both sides to take concrete steps to advance the political process.
After meeting with Powell, however, Abbas called on Israel to accept the internationally backed “road map” toward peace and allow P.A. President Yasser Arafat to travel freely.
Following his talks with Sharon, Powell called Israeli proposals to improve conditions for the Palestinians “very promising.” The measures are expected to include eased travel restrictions on Palestinians and a release of some 200 Palestinian administrative detainees.
But both Israeli and Palestinian leaders did not yield on their core demands, which each presented as critical for progress.
For Israel, these include a Palestinian declaration giving up the “right of return” for refugees and their descendants from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence to homes inside Israel.
Israel also insists that the Palestinian Authority take concrete steps to fight terrorism and dismantle terrorist groups.
Palestinians demands include an Israeli declaration that they accept the “road map” toward peace as is, and end settlement activity and targeted killings of terrorists.
Like other visits of American envoys since the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000, Powell’s comes against a backdrop of violence: A 53-year-old Israeli was killed Sunday when his car came under fire near the West Bank settlement of Ofra.
A second car sustained damage, but none of its passengers was injured.
Terrorists from the Fatah movement, which Arafat and Abbas lead, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed responsibility.
In the Gaza Strip on Saturday night, Israeli troops shot and killed a Palestinian whom they suspected of trying to infiltrate Israel when he was spotted near the security fence in a prohibited zone.
Also Saturday, two Israeli women were lightly hurt in a Palestinian rocket attack on the Gaza Strip settlement of Neveh Dekalim. The day earlier, an Israeli mother and daughter were lightly hurt when Palestinians fired Kassam rockets at the Negev town of Sderot.
While acknowledging the conditions raised by the sides, Powell urged them to “get started.”
“There will be more than enough time in the future to discuss the more contentious issues. But right now let’s get started,” he said.
“Let’s not get distracted by items that can be debated at a later time,” he said at a news conference following talks in Jericho on Sunday with Abbas.
Earlier, following his meeting in Jerusalem with Sharon, Powell called on the Palestinians to take “decisive action” to “disarm and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure.” Without such efforts, Powell said, “our best efforts will fail.
He went on to say that progress would depend on “concrete measures” by Israel to support further Palestinian reform. Powell said he and Sharon also had discussed specific measures Israel could take to “immediately improve the situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to improve the environment for peace-making.”
Without elaborating on the steps Sharon outlined, Powell said he is “pleased” that the Israeli prime minister confirmed Israel’s intention to take “positive steps in the days ahead,” and looked forward to continued steps when Sharon visits Washington later this month.
Sources in Jerusalem said a meeting between Abbas and Sharon might take place before the weekend, before the Israeli leader heads for the United States, Israel Radio reported. Sources in Jerusalem said Powell is encouraging the meeting.
Sharon also did not give details on what was discussed. Asked about Israel’s readiness to halt settlement activity, Sharon reiterated his previous declarations that he is prepared to make “painful concessions” in real negotiations, but will not take steps that endanger Israeli security.
Israel “repeated to the secretary our sincere wish to move forward in implementing the vision of President Bush” from a landmark speech last June 24, “and our readiness to invest substantial efforts in order to make progress and not miss this opportunity,” Sharon said.
In that speech, Bush backed Palestinian statehood — provided the Palestinians first fulfilled a series of conditions, including an end to violence against Israel and the installation of a new Palestinian leadership not compromised by terrorism.
Sharon stressed that a “genuine war against terror by the Palestinians involving real efforts to prevent terror is the key to progress in the political process.”
Among the measures Israel was expected to implement were the easing of restrictions on the movement of goods in and out of Palestinian Authority areas, widening fishing areas off the Gaza Strip and releasing Palestinian detainees, Israel Radio reported. Up to 200 Palestinians were expected to be released this week, including dozens freed on Sunday, reports said.
On Saturday night, Israel also lifted a full closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip that has been imposed intermittently over the past two months. But Israeli officials said the security alert would remain in effect, as terrorist groups were increasing efforts to carry out attacks.
Powell also met with Israeli President Moshe Katsav and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. Mofaz reportedly told Powell that Israel is prepared to pull back troops from some areas of the northern Gaza Strip and transfer responsibility to the Palestinian security forces there.
He stressed that Israel would not accept a proposed cease-fire between the Palestinian Authority and terrorist organizations, demanding that the Palestinian Authority launch a real war against terrorism.
Mofaz also briefed Powell on the shooting attack in the West Bank and recent wave of rocket attacks on Israeli targets in and around the Gaza Strip.