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U.S. Envoy to Mideast Paves Powell's Way

Assistant secretary of State tries to rally support for a peace plan backed by U.S.

May 05, 2003|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Trying to jump-start a new Middle East peace initiative, a senior U.S. envoy Sunday called on Palestinians to curtail violent attacks and urged Israel to ease the conditions of its military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Assistant Secretary of State William Burns arrived here Sunday to pave the way for an expected visit by his boss, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, later in the week.

Both men are lobbying for a quick start on carrying out a peace plan known as the "road map," a U.S.-backed proposal to end the bloody Israeli-Palestinian conflict through mutual concessions and the eventual establishment of an independent Palestinian state, perhaps as early as 2005.

Burns met with three Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, to make the case for the plan, which the Bush administration and other international mediators formally unveiled last week. Israel accepts the road map in broad outline but disagrees strongly with some of the details.

The document calls for an immediate cessation of the suicide bombings and other violent acts by Palestinian militant groups.

"It's impossible to conceive of progress being made in the direction of a two-state vision unless there's a decisive effort to bring that about," Burns said.

"That's going to require a restoration of Palestinian efforts against terror," he said, in a message directed at the newly installed government of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who was sworn into office Wednesday.

A perceived moderate, Abbas has announced his intention to disarm militant Palestinian factions and pursue peace through a political settlement with the Israeli government. Burns plans to meet today with Abbas and his security minister, Mohammed Dahlan.

In comments after meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Burns also called on Israel to mitigate its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, a crackdown that has put onerous restrictions on hundreds of thousands of Palestinians through such measures as checkpoints and curfews.

"The humanitarian situation for Palestinians is a very difficult one, and we very much hope that concrete steps can be taken to ease that," Burns said.

After briefing Shalom, Burns met with Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and with Sharon.

Israel has expressed a number of reservations on the new peace plan, which was drafted by the U.S., United Nations, European Union and Russia. Israel says a Palestinian cease-fire is the precondition of any talks, as well as the abandonment of a longtime demand that Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to lands they fled when the Jewish state was established 55 years ago.

Palestinian officials accuse Israel of stonewalling and say they are ready to start carrying out the road map as long as Israel fulfills its obligations at the same time, such as freezing Jewish settlement construction and withdrawing its troops from parts of the West Bank and Gaza.

Aides to Sharon and Abbas are trying to arrange a meeting between the two leaders but have been unable to agree on a date.

Dahlan, the security affairs minister, told Associated Press on Sunday that his team would hold security talks with Israeli officials Thursday, which would be the first such meeting since August.

Despite the flurry of diplomatic activity, violence continued Sunday when Israeli soldiers shot dead a Palestinian teenager who they said threw stones at them near the West Bank city of Nablus.

Also Sunday, the dovish leader of Israel's opposition Labor Party resigned, citing backstabbing by rivals, which he said made his job impossible.

Amram Mitzna's resignation is a blow to left-wing Israelis who supported his pledge in elections in January to withdraw troops from some Palestinian areas and resume negotiations.

Mitzna's party fared badly in the elections, losing several parliamentary seats and ultimately opting not to join Sharon's coalition government.

"I am confident in my ability to lead the struggle for peace, but I am less confident in my ability and desire to struggle, time and time again, for my legitimacy as chairman of the Labor Party," Mitzna told reporters in Tel Aviv.

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