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Powell Starts High-Stakes Mideast Trip

April 08, 2002|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Colin L. Powell left on a high-stakes mission to the Middle East late Sunday after firmly pressing Israel both publicly and in a call to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to withdraw "now" from Palestinian-governed cities.

Sharon "understands clearly," and President Bush's call for a pullout "will not be ignored," Powell predicted.

"I know that [Sharon] is trying to move the operation forward as quickly as possible. And we'll see what happens in the next couple days," Powell said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Under mounting pressure from the Arab world, Powell said that "if circumstances permit," he would meet with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Powell once again called on Arafat to stop stalling and demand an end to suicide attacks that have killed scores of Israeli civilians.

But in blunt language that reflects why the Bush administration is getting more deeply involved in the continuing crisis, Powell warned that Israel's incursion into the West Bank to root out extremists could backfire, increasing the risks to both Israel and the region.

"We may well be radicalizing a new generation, many more terrorists waiting to act once this incursion is over," he said on "Fox News Sunday."

Even after Israel withdraws, Powell added, the Jewish state will face the same pressures, frustration and anger from the Palestinians.

"And perhaps it'll be even greater and will give rise to this kind of activity again--unless the Palestinians see hope, unless the Palestinians see Israel, the United States, the Palestinian leaders, the Arab leaders, the international community all coming together to support a cease-fire which rapidly leads to negotiations that will create a political solution," he said on Fox.

The obstacles to Powell's mission, including turbulent protests in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world, make it the riskiest diplomatic venture the secretary has undertaken, according to Arab diplomats and U.S. analysts.

The reaction to Israeli reoccupation of every West Bank city except Jericho in the last 10 days has engulfed the entire region.

"We've had 220 demonstrations all over the country over the last five days. This is no longer an Arab-Israeli problem," Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher said in an interview Sunday.

The dangers were underscored Sunday along Israel's border with Lebanon, where guerrillas from the Syrian-backed Islamic militant movement Hezbollah traded fire with Israeli forces.

Powell tried to lower the expectations of what he can achieve in a week. "If we have brought the violence down, if we have started to create a dialogue again between the two sides, then my trip will have been worth the energy that I'm going to put into it and the effort we're going to put into it," he said on NBC.

As the uproar grows, the United States is stepping up pressure on Sharon to withdraw his troops and tanks. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said Bush used the word "now" several times during a telephone conversation with Sharon on Saturday.

"The clear message to the Israelis is that we understand that a military mobilization of this kind, an operation of this size, cannot be undone in moments, but the important point is to begin now, without delay. Not tomorrow, not when Secretary Powell gets to the region, but now, to reverse the situation, because there's a lot at stake here," Rice said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Powell said Sunday that Washington does not have a timetable, in part because the United States does not "give orders" to a democratically elected leader of a sovereign nation.

Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said Sharon tried to convince Bush on Saturday that Israel is in the middle of an operation that "might save life and maybe might save the peace process in the long run" and that it should continue.

Israel expects the United States to understand the Jewish state's basic needs, Ben-Eliezer said on ABC's "This Week."

An Israeli diplomat in Washington said Sunday that Israel is likely to comply by week's end, when Powell is scheduled to arrive in the nation. "The expectation is that by the time Powell gets there, the operation will be winding down--and maybe more," said the diplomat, who asked not to be identified.

The United States is also pressing Arafat in preparation for Powell's visit. On Sunday, Powell warned that he cannot win Israel's consent to focus on a political solution unless the Palestinians halt suicide bombings and other attacks.

"Until the violence goes down hopefully to zero, but at least to a level where you can see that both sides are acting in a responsible way and trying to cooperate in a cease-fire, you're not going to get to a peace agreement," Powell said on NBC.

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