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Powell Nudges Mideast Leaders

The secretary of State is upbeat as he manages to win small concessions and 'sufficient goodwill' to move on a plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

May 12, 2003|Robin Wright | Times Staff Writer

JERICHO, West Bank — Secretary of State Colin L. Powell pried some small symbolic moves and promises from Israel and the Palestinians on Sunday but failed to make much headway in the U.S. bid to launch a new Middle East peace process.

Powell tried to appear upbeat as he concluded the first leg of a weeklong tour of the Mideast and Europe, which included meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas' confirmation as prime minister at the end of April paved the way for the release of the new U.S.-backed "road map" for peace in the region.

Powell said late Sunday that the two sides had demonstrated "sufficient goodwill to get started" on the road map.

But Israeli and Palestinian officials said the prospects for further momentum behind the plan -- the most ambitious such blueprint since last-ditch mediation by the Clinton administration before it left office -- appeared slim at the end of Powell's diplomatic blitz.

The officials said any hope for progress would have to focus on a visit to the White House by Sharon scheduled for May 20.

After Powell held talks with Sharon in Jerusalem on Sunday, Israeli authorities said they had opened checkpoints to Palestinian workers for the first time since the Passover holiday nearly a month ago, in what a Defense Ministry spokeswoman called a "gesture of trust toward Palestinians." The move could apply to as many as 25,000 Palestinians who have special permits to work in Israel, of the roughly 3 million living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel also released 63 Palestinians in administrative detention, and Defense Ministry spokeswoman Shiry Eden said that 140 more would be released today. Most were detained for sneaking into Israel without a permit, however, and many were just weeks away from being released. U.S. officials also noted that roughly 1,100 Palestinians are detainees and at least 5,000 more are in Israeli jails.

In turn, Abbas told Powell during later talks in Jericho that he planned a two-step approach to ending Palestinian violence. According to U.S. and Palestinian officials, the prime minister, also known as Abu Mazen, said that the first step would be to attempt negotiations with militants and that the effort would be followed by a crackdown on extremists if they did not comply.

Still, the two sides' pledges fell short of the expectations of any of the parties involved, including the United States.

The Palestinians charged that Sharon's failure during Powell's visit to formally accept the road map -- or even to utter the words "road map" at a joint news conference with the secretary -- signaled a lack of will.

"There is no clear Israeli commitment, which is more than disappointing. Having no good news to report is going to create a horrible situation for us that will undermine Abu Mazen very much," Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said in an interview.

The Israeli moves also included neither action nor promises on key steps proposed in the road map, including an end to targeted killings of Palestinians, to the demolition of Palestinian homes and to illegal Jewish settlements and "outposts," Shaath said.

"Israel has really undermined Powell by not taking any real action or showing any real willingness to act on the road map. If Powell had known this was going to happen, he might not have wanted to come in the first place," Shaath said.

Israel, for its part, warned that the Palestinian failure to promise to dismantle and disarm extremist groups, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, would prevent major concessions by the Jewish state. Negotiations for a cease-fire by militants are not enough, even if the Palestinians have a backup plan in the event of continuing attacks, officials said.

"A genuine war against terror by the Palestinians, imposing real efforts to prevent terror, is the key to progress in the political process. Quiet and security for the Israeli people will lead to Israeli measures that will create a new and better reality for the Palestinian population," Sharon said at his news conference with Powell.

Indeed, Hamas boasted Sunday that Abbas would have no success disarming militant and Islamic groups.

"He is unable to disarm, and nobody will accept [moves to] disarm," Hamas spokesman Mahmoud Zahar told Israel Radio.

Powell told Israeli television, however, that he was "impressed" with the Palestinian prime minister's commitment to ending the attacks and suicide bombings that have killed more than 730 Israelis over the last 31 months.

"He knows it cannot just be a temporary thing," Powell said. "I am convinced that he will take the message to the Palestinian people and then as he gathers authority and strength he will deal with these kinds of organizations."

More than 2,000 Palestinians have been killed during the same period.

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