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Powell Wants to Get Talks Moving

The secretary, touring the Mideast, promotes the 'road map' to peace.

May 11, 2003|Robin Wright | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Facing widespread skepticism about the prospects for real progress, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell pressed Israel and the Palestinians to "get on with it" as he arrived here Saturday to open talks on the new international "road map" for a final peace producing a Palestinian state.

Powell conceded that the road map is controversial but said that the United States is not prepared to allow debate over the three-stage plan to bog down the new effort, as has happened so often with past proposals.

"The road map is controversial of course. There are elements that one party or the other might not like. But it does reflect the president's view and the view of others in the international community about how to achieve that vision, and we need to get started ... and not enter a prolonged debate," Powell told reporters traveling with him to Israel.

"We know what has to be done in the very first steps of the first phase, so let's get on with it."

On his first visit to Israel in more than a year, Powell tried to strike an optimistic note, pointing to the "period of opportunity" created by the changed dynamics in the region after the Iraq war. He noted that new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has begun to speak out forcefully against violence and terrorism and said that Israel has appeared somewhat flexible in its expectations.

"I haven't heard Israelis talk of total calm," Powell said. "They are saying they are looking for a lot of effort and intent."

The secretary pledged that the White House intends to play a "leading and powerful role" in getting the parties to act decisively, asserting that President Bush is turning his "time, attention and energy" to the deadlocked peace process.

"He is determined to see progress toward his vision," Powell said.

But Powell's resolve stood in stark contrast to the general mood of pessimism here.

Israeli officials are wary of the road map and say privately that neither the time nor circumstances on the ground are ripe for major concessions -- especially the creation of a provisional Palestinian state by year's end.

The Israeli government is also dubious about the United States' ability to orchestrate an end to the violence. Since Abbas was approved by the Palestinian legislature on April 30, militants have carried out two suicide bombings and a drive-by shooting, killing five Israelis. This morning, wire service reports quoted police as saying that Palestinian gunmen killed an Israeli when they opened fire on his car near the West Bank settlement of Ofra.

Palestinians, for their part, welcome the U.S. intent but are cynical about the chances of the road map, a joint effort of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia. They point to Israel's abrupt call last week for the Palestinians to renounce the "right of return" as a prerequisite for the completion of talks. Such a right would allow any surviving refugees who fled or were expelled from what is now Israel in 1948, as well as their descendants, to go back. The total number of those people is estimated at 4 million.

On Saturday, the Palestinian press quoted Planning Minister Nabil Shaath as predicting that Powell's visit would yield limited results, while the newspaper Al Quds charged that Washington is undermining the process by deferring to Israel.

"How would Powell be able to push forward the peace process during his visit to the region when Israel is refusing to even declare its acceptance of the road map," the paper said in an editorial.

Palestinians are also miffed that Powell's mission appears to be undermined in advance by a scheduled May 20 visit to Washington by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. That trip was announced Friday, hours before the secretary left Washington.

To get a new peace process going, Powell said, the two sides must initiate often difficult confidence-building steps, including a halt to Palestinian violence and suicide bombings and an end to Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas, as outlined in the first phase of the three-year road map.

"It's clear what we need: Action on security on the Palestinian side; on the Israeli side, anything they can do to ease closures and ease the difficulties the Palestinians have in moving around, getting to hospitals, getting to jobs, getting to work in order to get some economic activity started again," the secretary said.

The White House now expects the parties to meet those obligations, he said.

A major dispute is already raging in the background, however, over the timing and sequence of the steps. The Palestinians want action to be taken by the two sides at the same time, while Israel wants the Palestinian violence to end before its crackdown is eased.

The United States is encouraging an arrangement that would result in small steps in tandem -- Israel easing up in one city, such as Bethlehem, as the violence subsided.

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