Secretary of State Colin Powell insisted Wednesday that his peacekeeping mission was not threatened by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's refusal to halt military incursions in Palestinian areas.
"My mission is not in the least in jeopardy," Powell told a news conference shortly after Sharon said the military offensive in the West Bank will continue, despite strong U.S. objections, until Palestinian militias have been defeated.
Powell, who arrives in Jerusalem on Thursday, said he still intends to meet with both Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He said that, despite criticism of Arafat, he remains "the leader of the Palestinian people," and a key player in any effort to secure a truce.
Furthermore, Powell said, "we would like to see Mr. Arafat given more space, more access" so he can communicate with other leaders while under Israeli restrictions. "I will be looking into that," he said.
Earlier, officials from the United Nations, the European Union and Russia endorsed Powell's peacemaking venture. But Sharon's fresh refusal to end the military offensive threatened to complicate that mission.
Touring an Israeli army base near the West Bank refugee camp of Jenin, Sharon told reporters earlier Wednesday that he has informed President Bush he could not pull troops back immediately, as Washington has demanded.
Asked about those comments, Powell said that Bush "has spoken clearly" on the need for Israel to withdraw its forces quickly.
"We understand the difficult situation that Israel finds itself in, but we believe that the best way to relieve this tension, the best way to move forward and provide a solution to the crisis ... is for withdrawal of Israeli forces," Powell said.
"And the president has been reinforcing that point of view every day," he added at a joint news conference with Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique.
In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the latest suicide bombing in Israel was one more reason for all parties to work toward peace.
Wednesday's suicide bombing, which killed eight Israelis, "reinforces for the president the need for all parties to step back, for Israel to withdraw and for the Palestinians and the Arabs to stop the violence, to stop the killing," Fleischer said.
"The president thinks that both sides want to get it done and both sides, the specific reference there is to Israel and our Arab allies," Fleischer said, pointedly leaving out Arafat. "The president remains to be convinced that Chairman Arafat will implement the things he previously, under Oslo, promised to implement" to help make peace.
The leaders in Madrid urged both Israelis and Palestinians to cooperate with Powell.
"There is no military solution to the conflict," said a joint statement issued by four leaders and Powell. The statement called for an immediate cease-fire and Israel's immediate withdrawal from Palestinian-held cities on the West Bank, including Ramallah, where Arafat is under confinement.
At the same time, the officials said, "Terrorism, including suicide bombing, is illegal and immoral."
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, appearing at a news conference after the meeting, said Syrian and Lebanese leaders had assured him they would try to curb guerrilla attacks on Israel from Lebanon.
"They will do everything they can," Annan said he was told.
A senior U.S. official called the situation serious and said Israel was being urged to act with restraint in response to Hezbollah attacks.
Powell reiterated his position that a political solution must be pressed hand-in-hand with efforts for a cease-fire.
"Violence of whatever form ... at this point is counterproductiive," Powell said. "It is totally destabilizing the region."
Pique and other European officials have begun to consider imposing trade sanctions against Israel if Sharon does not reverse his military foray on the West Bank, but Powell said the trade issue did not come up at the talks Wednesday.
Joining Powell in the session were Pique and Javier Solana, representing the EU, Annan and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.
Meanwhile, a senior U.S. official said details have not been worked out for Powell's weekend meeting with Arafat, but that Powell still intends to the see the Palestinian leader. Sharon said Wednesday that meeting would be a "tragic mistake."
Powell was meeting later Wednesday in Madrid with King Juan Carlos of Spain and then having dinner with Ivanov, to discuss the Middle East as well as U.S.-Russian affairs including a planned arms-control summit in Moscow.
Powell is to fly to Jordan for discussions with the Jordanian king on Thursday and then on Israel later in the day.
"We are going to have to act more quickly," Powell said Tuesday after a round of talks with Arab leaders and an announcement that he would meet with Arafat.
Powell said he expected Israel to withdraw its troops from the West Bank, and all nations are obliged to do what they can to stop the fighting. He said he urged Syria and, through intermediaries, Iran to clamp down on militant groups.
Powell is pressing for accelerated negotiations to establish a Palestinian state and said the United States would seek a swift end to violence between Israel and the Palestinians.
Setting no deadline to complete his mission, Powell said he would meet Arafat as well as Sharon in an effort to broker a truce. "I haven't set any departure date," the secretary said. "I am prepared to stay for some while."