Colin Powell trying to arrange new Mideast talks

The Associated Press
Thursday May 17, 2001

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Colin Powell wants to meet this month with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in a newly energized U.S. drive to end violence, help the Palestinian economy and find a way back to the negotiating table with Israel. 

In his diplomacy, Powell is using as a launch pad a report by a fact-finding commission that recommended a halt to construction of Jewish settlements on the West Bank and Gaza and acceptance by both sides of a cease-fire proposed by Jordan and Egypt. 

The main purpose of a Powell meeting with Arafat would be to try to end months of violence that has sidetracked peace efforts and brought death and injury to hundreds of Palestinians and Israelis. 

Powell already appealed repeatedly to Arafat to state publicly, in unambiguous Arabic, that his people should stop attacking Israelis. 

“We have not identified a time, a date or a place for this meeting,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Wednesday. 

Powell is flying Monday to Africa for a four-nation tour, then will go to Hungary. A meeting with Arafat would be added to that trip, the spokesman said. 

The secretary of state discussed an Arafat meeting, which would be their second, at the State Department on Tuesday with Mahmoud Abbas, top deputy to the Palestinian leader. 

Powell also is looking to use the report by a fact-finding commission, headed by former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, as the basis of a new effort to curb violence and restart negotiations. 

Israel objects to the commission’s proposal that all construction activity in Jewish settlements on the West Bank and Gaza be halted. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has promised not to start new settlements but has said expansion for natural growth would be continued. 

Stopping construction, then closing down all or most of the Jewish outposts, is a long-sought Arafat goal. 

Boucher said the Mitchell commission produced a “very fine report,” but he declined to say whether it had more than the administration’s “general endorsement.” 

Powell has said he also wants to use the joint proposal by Egypt and Jordan that would separate Israeli and Palestinian forces as a means of ending the violence. 

Early in the Bush administration, its plans were to keep its distance from the Arab-Israeli conflict, which it characterized as one of many difficult issues in the region. 

The pervasive violence, and a drumbeat of demands from Arab and other nations that the United States assume the kind of role undertaken by past administrations, combined to produce stepped-up U.S. diplomatic activity. 

This has included efforts to bring Israel and the Palestinians into accord on security measures. 

Boucher said the Bush administration had been consistent in saying it would be engaged in the Middle East. 

“We are engaged. We are active. You’ve seen all the secretary’s phone calls, all the president’s meetings, all the diplomatic activity from our ambassador and our consul general and other representatives in the region,” he said. 

On a trip to the Middle East in February, Powell met with Arafat in Ramallah on the West Bank. 

The Palestinian leader has not been invited to the White House, but Sharon was the first Middle East leader to visit the new president. He was followed by several Arab leaders including President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah II of Jordan. 

Top Arafat aides are fanning out across the United States to promote the idea of restarting peace talks even as regional violence continues. Their efforts center on getting the Bush administration to embrace the Mitchell commission report. 

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said on a visit to Washington this month, and again in Israel on Wednesday, that his government opposes a halt in settlement construction.  

But Peres, a longtime dove who set in motion territorial concessions to Arafat, said differences on the issue can be resolved and suggested the Mitchell report could be used as a springboard for peace talks. 

The Palestinians largely have accepted the report, which followed an investigation into the violence, although the document is critical of their attacks on Israel. 


“The real test is how the Americans are going to handle the report,” senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Tuesday in New York. 

On the Net: State Department Near East desk: http://www.state.gov/p/nea/