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The Middle East

Powell Talks to Both Sides; No Progress

Mideast: Arafat says Israel must withdraw troops from West Bank before he will crack down on militants. But Sharon gives U.S. secretary no timetable for a pullback.

April 15, 2002|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Secretary of State Colin L. Powell met with Yasser Arafat for three hours Sunday at the Palestinian leader's besieged and bullet-scarred headquarters here but came away without a commitment to end a wave of suicide bombings before an Israeli troop withdrawal from the West Bank.

In a meeting later with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Powell also came up empty-handed. Sharon would not commit himself to a timetable for a pullback.

Powell called his first meeting with Arafat, under the watchful eye of Israeli troops just a few yards away, a "useful and constructive exchange." In blunt terms, the secretary repeatedly told Arafat that the suicide attacks are a major barrier to any progress on Palestinian hopes for an independent state, according to a senior State Department official.

"We've always said that Chairman Arafat has authority, has leadership, he has stature within his community, within the Arab world [and] that he needs to speak clearly about how this violence harms the Palestinian case," the official told reporters traveling with Powell.

But Powell was unable to settle the basic chicken-and-egg conundrum concerning conditions to achieve a cease-fire in the deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Once the Israelis complete their withdrawal, we will, as Palestinians, carry out our obligations," senior Arafat advisor Saeb Erekat told reporters after the meeting.

In an interview later, Erekat added: "We need to have two sides, and we have only one side involved so far. . . . We're willing to do something as soon as we have a Palestinian Authority again, but we have no authority now."

Instead of promising a crackdown, Arafat spent the first hour of the meeting outlining the specifics of the humanitarian crisis and deteriorating conditions in the reoccupied Palestinian areas, particularly Jenin and Bethlehem.

The meeting featured "no breakthroughs" and "no blowups," said one U.S. official who was present.

Afterward, Powell shuttled to Tel Aviv for a second round of talks with Sharon to push again for Israel to expedite a pullback from the West Bank. These talks were described as "very good and thorough" by State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

But according to Israeli sources, Powell did not get a date from Sharon for an Israeli withdrawal.

"The prime minister said we will pull out as soon as possible, and where there is no more terror we will pull out," said Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin. "But the problem is the Palestinians have done nothing. We did not give a deadline, and Secretary Powell did not ask for one."

Sharon stuck to his hard-line positions on several issues, including the Israeli siege of Arafat's headquarters, Gissin indicated.

Indeed, rather than move to end the incursion, Sharon's Cabinet approved plans Sunday to set up buffer zones in three locations to keep Palestinians out of Israel. Sharon has said the army, when it completes its offensive in the West Bank, will pull back to these zones, which will be located near the border between the West Bank and Israel in the vicinity of the West Bank city of Tulkarm, opposite the Israeli Arab town of Umm al Fahm and near Jerusalem.

The buffer zone plan is controversial because it would establish a permanent Israeli presence on West Bank land.

The Cabinet also debated Sharon's proposal that Israeli troops enter Arafat's headquarters to capture suspects in connection with last year's assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was reported to have objected vehemently to that plan. Israel believes two of the suspects are holed up with Arafat.

So at the end of the day, after rebuffs by both sides, a breakthrough in Powell's diplomatic rescue mission appeared as elusive as ever.

The secretary has begun exploring several ideas with the two sides to resolve both immediate problems and long-term issues. One area of urgent focus is the standoff in Bethlehem at the Church of the Nativity, where more than 100 Palestinian gunmen sought refuge April 2 from invading Israeli troops. The bodies of two Palestinians who have been shot dead during the siege remain in the church.

Because the standoff is a major problem for both sides, the United States is focusing on it as a microcosm of the broader confrontation. If it can be solved, that may serve as proof that cooperation is possible.

"We've discussed Bethlehem for a couple of days. Arafat identifies Bethlehem as one of his top issues, so it's worth the effort," the senior State Department official said.

On Saturday, Gissin said, Sharon asked Powell to relay one proposal to Arafat: Surrender the Palestinian gunmen to a third party, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, or agree to their permanent exile from their homeland.

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