Powell mediates by phone in attempt at Mideast truce

By Barry Schweid AP Diplomatic Writer
Friday August 31, 2001

WASHINGTON — Long-distance mediation by Secretary of State Colin Powell helped Israeli and Palestinian leaders conclude a truce over a West Bank town. 

The State Department held out Powell’s telephone diplomacy as evidence the Bush administration was not just sitting on the sidelines in the 11-month Mideast conflict. 

“As we’ve always said, when we get a lot of these questions about personal engagement by the secretary, when he can be involved and help something happen, he will do so. He did,” Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman, said Thursday. 

The truce called for Israeli troops to withdraw from Beit Jalla and for the Palestinians to stop sniper activity from the town on Gilo, on the outskirts of Jerusalem. 

“We are encouraged.” Boucher said. He said he hoped it would lead to security cooperation between the two sides. 

But while calm prevailed in Beit Jalla, a series of bloody flare-ups elsewhere dimmed hopes the truce would spread to other areas. 

Technically on vacation, Powell spoke twice on Wednesday to Yasser Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Authority, and twice each to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres of Israel. 

“He talked to them about the need to maintain calm,” Boucher said. “He talked to the Israeli side about the need to withdraw.” 

Arafat wanted to make sure the Israelis would withdraw their troops, a position Powell has embraced. The Israelis wanted to make sure the Palestinians would stop shooting if they did. 

“The secretary was able to sort of pass the message that, ‘If you do this, he’ll do that. If you do that, he’ll do this,’ and helped reinforce the kind of understandings that they were reaching,” Boucher said. 

Powell also got involved in some of the details of the truce, the spokesman said. 

Crediting the Israelis and Palestinians with taking the initiative to seek an agreement, Boucher said it gave Powell an opportunity to intervene constructively. 

“To the extent we can be helpful, we will,” Boucher said. 

Powell was back on the telephone Thursday with Arafat, King Abdullah II of Jordan, Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher of Egypt, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of Germany and Javier Solana, the chief foreign policy adviser to the European Union, seeking their help in trying to end the fighting. 

But in Paris, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said in an earlier interview with the Le Figaro newspaper that the United States was distancing itself from the conflict. 

“We’re waiting for them to engage themselves more, given their global responsibilities and the exceptional influence they have over the protagonists of the conflict,” Vedrine said. 

He compared the Bush administration to Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect whom Christians believe ordered the crucifixion of Christ. 

Boucher’s response was “the facts speak for themselves.” 

Meanwhile, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., met with Sharon in Tel Aviv and told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that the prime minister said Arafat would act against Palestinian violence only under pressure. 

Sharon also said he would never negotiate the division of Jerusalem with the Palestinians, Engel said.