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Under Pressure, Powell Considers Talks With Israelis, Arabs

Diplomacy: 'It's the secretary of State's job to go and to try,' one senator says.

April 04, 2002|ROBIN WRIGHT and EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — In a bow to mounting pressure that the United States get involved in the volatile Mideast crisis, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Wednesday that he is considering holding talks with Israeli and Arab leaders while in Europe next week.

Though no decisions have been made, Powell is also considering a trip to the Middle East after his European visit.

"It's not out of the question that I might go to the region. It depends. I'm willing to go to the region. But I have to go to the region if I have a purpose that I can serve and there is something concrete to be done," Powell said later on CBS' "60 Minutes II."

Bush administration officials cautioned that Powell's schedule is still in flux. But there is growing frustration in Washington with both the Palestinians and the Israelis over their failure to heed strongly worded U.S. messages to end the cycle of violence that spiked last week.

There are serious risks involved in holding talks or making a Mideast trip, especially if the administration is unable to get either side to budge.

"There are a lot of good reasons not to do it--and a lot of reasons the Israelis don't want him to," said the U.S. official, who requested anonymity.

Talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials in Europe would focus on increasing the pressure on both sides to take specific, immediate actions to end the violence.

The Bush administration has been sending messages during the last two days with "a tougher edge" in an effort to get Israel to wrap up its incursions into Palestinian-governed areas. "The Israelis apparently don't feel a sense of urgency in this operation, which is of serious concern to us," the U.S. official said.

Powell is scheduled to fly to Berlin and Madrid next week to attend a U.S.-European Union session and meet with Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov to plan for President Bush's first trip to Russia next month. But Powell acknowledged that the Mideast crisis is likely to be a major issue during the trip.

The president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, said American diplomacy had failed, and he called for European mediation and perhaps a new conference to prevent an all-out regional war and get the parties back to the negotiating table.

Powell sought to minimize the U.S.-European differences. "I think we have done so well to stay together and unified that I am going to work hard to make sure we do stay together and unified," he said.

"The immediate problem is to get control over the terrorism and the violence in the region. And until that is done, conferences that lay out different kinds of political goals or new political initiatives just take us off the main point," Powell said.

Among those who called on Powell to go to the Middle East was Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who made the same pitch to Bush on Tuesday during a 25-minute limousine ride in Pennsylvania, where the president made two public appearances.

"It's nice to go when you've got it all worked out and you can have a triumphant trip. But you can't go to bat and expect to hit a home run every time. And I believe it's the secretary of State's job to go and to try," Specter said on CBS' "The Early Show." Specter recently returned from the Middle East, where he met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and U.S. special envoy Anthony C. Zinni.

In an interview with The Times, Specter said he told the president: "If you don't try, you sure won't succeed; if you try, you might."

At the State Department, meanwhile, a delegation of Arab American leaders urged the United States to take a more evenhanded approach in the Middle East and to work more aggressively to end the violence.

In a private, 90-minute meeting with Powell, they urged the administration to call for not only a cessation of all violence between Arabs and Israelis but also "an immediate end to Israel's invasion and occupation of Palestinian areas," said Ziad Asali, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

He said the group told Powell that the United States should also set a specific date for the resumption of security and political talks.

Another meeting participant, James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, said the group also protested what it regards as Washington's "achingly inadequate" public statements about the situation in the region, which he says have been "perceived both in Israel and in the Arab world as giving Ariel Sharon a green light while applying pressure on only one party."

Zogby said the group also chided Powell for suggesting that the current Israeli operation could take "some weeks."

After their session with Powell, Zogby and Asali told reporters outside the State Department that their delegation was generally satisfied with Powell's responses.

"The secretary gets it," Zogby said. "The question, though, of the broader policy is one that concerns us and concerns many in the region."

Separately, Saudi Arabia weighed in, asking the administration to help stop Sharon's offensive and restart the peace talks.

The Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, has warned administration officials that Arab support for the war on terrorism could melt away as long as Arabs perceive that the United States is giving Sharon a blank check, an Arab official said.

But Bandar has made little headway, and the Saudis feel "frustrated," the official said.

"Can't the administration see what this is doing to its own interests in the region?" he asked.

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has raised the amount that Iraq will pay relatives of suicide bombers from $10,000 to $25,000.

Rumsfeld said he was publicizing the Iraqi move as a way to remind the world "of the problem that we're dealing with here."

Times Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus contributed to this report.

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