WASHINGTON — Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Thursday that he returned from a Middle East tour last week "more hopeful than just about any time" about easing the tensions between Israel and the Palestinians.
But the Delaware lawmaker urged the Bush administration to appoint a special envoy to help ensure that the Palestinian Authority's Jan. 9 presidential election is successful and paves the way for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Biden, who met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, said all agreed there was an opportunity to make progress. Only Washington and most of Israel's Arab neighbors, Biden said, remain less than fully engaged.
In a briefing with reporters, Biden said Abbas -- who became chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization last month, after the death of PLO chief and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat -- told him that Palestinians must provide security for the Israelis because "we haven't any choice."
Abbas believes that he could control most of the militias involved in the uprising against Israel, Biden said. The Palestinian leader "focused on Israeli needs," he added.
Biden said Sharon similarly showed interest in addressing Palestinian needs. Sharon said the United States should give Abbas financial and political support to help ensure that the voting succeeds and negotiations with Israel resume.
Although none of the leaders he spoke with asked for a special envoy, Biden said, he believed that the Bush administration should appoint one soon to work with the parties on the ground before and after the election.
"This is local politics right now," he said.
To survive politically, Abbas needs to address the hopes of his constituents, Biden said, and the U.S. should do what it can to help him. "He has to be able to deliver something" over the next three months, Biden said of Abbas, who this week called on Palestinians to end the armed struggle against Israel.
The senator said that he was unsure whether the administration understood the urgency of the situation and that he would like to see it offer suggestions on how it could help Abbas now.