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A Peace Plan in Need of Progress

Israelis and Palestinians must make headway soon or risk derailing the effort, Powell says.

June 20, 2003|Robin Wright | Times Staff Writer

DEAD SEA, Jordan — Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Thursday that significant progress between Israelis and Palestinians would be needed soon to ensure that a new U.S.-orchestrated peace process will produce a provisional Palestinian state by year's end.

Powell's comment was the first time a senior U.S. official has said that the three-phase "road map" to produce a final peace by the end of 2005 might get thrown off its original timetable.

"We need to see a lot of progress quickly, and hopefully over the next several days," Powell told reporters traveling with him. "We need to just get those first few footholds in the first stage of the road map, start to build confidence and trust, then we should be able to move more rapidly."

Powell also indicated that Washington may have secured Israel's agreement to modify its controversial policy of so-called targeted killings of Palestinian militants. And he noted that Israel has followed through on promises to begin taking down illegal settler outposts in the West Bank, a key requirement in the first phase of the peace plan.

Struggling to generate momentum behind the already troubled peace initiative, Powell arrived in Jordan late Thursday for three days of talks with regional leaders and officials with other members of the "quartet" that designed the ambitious plan to end the conflict. Besides the United States, the quartet consists of the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

The United States' top diplomat will helicopter to Israel for talks with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon this morning and will hold talks with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Jericho this afternoon. Powell will then return to Jordan to consult with other leaders during the World Economic Forum this weekend.

Powell cited "good conversations" this week between the Palestinians and Israelis on security issues, adding that the United States remains hopeful that this effort will succeed where other recent plans have failed.

"They are talking seriously and not talking past one another," he said. John Wolf, the veteran U.S. diplomat who arrived in the region last weekend to coordinate peace talks, is now engaged in "almost nonstop discussions" to work out a transfer of northern Gaza from Israeli control back to the Palestinian Authority government, Powell said.

But because the peace initiative has been slowed by a spate of Palestinian attacks and Israeli strikes, the secretary is already trying to lower expectations of what he will achieve on his fourth trip to the region in six weeks.

"Tomorrow is another day -- it is not anything special," he told reporters. "There is no reason to expect that suddenly it is all going to come together tomorrow."

Nevertheless, U.S. officials are hopeful for quick, tangible signs of progress in the wake of President Bush's summit with Israeli and Palestinian leaders two weeks ago in Aqaba, Jordan.

Powell pointed to Israel's possible shift in its policy on "targeted killings," which came after a series of tense diplomatic exchanges over the last two weeks.

The tactic has long been criticized by Washington, but it triggered particular U.S. consternation after Israel targeted a senior Hamas leader, Abdulaziz Rantisi, last week. The attack injured Rantisi.

The United States has been pressing the Israelis to limit such military actions to preempting extremists about to engage in terrorist attacks, but not to target political figures, which could deepen hostility among Palestinians. Israeli officials have coun- tered, during talks in Washington and Israel, that they have no alternative until Abbas gains control over a revamped Palestinian security force.

But the Bush administration thought that Israel had agreed during a Powell visit here last month to limit such strikes.

"I think [the Israelis] understand the distinction," Powell said Thursday. "They have a legitimate right of self-defense to preempt that attack. But when you expand out of that concept of self-defense into a broad targeting, you have to consider the consequences. Is that going to help us get closer to peace?"

Powell said Israel's dismantlement of unauthorized settlement outposts in the West Bank is "on track." "What they told us at Aqaba that they would do, they have been doing," he told reporters en route from a brief stop in Bangladesh to Jordan.

He also said that he and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice would be "engaged in a direct personal basis, almost in real time," in the coming weeks to keep the peace initiative from derailing. Rice may make her first visit here later this month.

"You'll see a constant engagement," he said. "And you'll see us all involved."

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