Archive for Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Powell looks for Israeli withdrawal

Secretary of State admonishes Palestinians to end terrorism

April 17, 2002

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— Ending a 10-day Mideast peace mission with little to show, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Wednesday that Israel had promised to withdraw troops from the West Bank within a week. He bluntly admonished Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that he had to do more to fight terrorism.

President Bush said Powell had made progress, but made clear that much more remains to be done, saying, "the time is now for all to make the choice for peace."

Israel and the Palestinians blamed each other for Powell's failure to achieve more. "Who can accept this?" said an angry Arafat, complaining of the Israeli siege of his Ramallah headquarters.

Powell, for his part, focused on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's promise to wind down the Israeli military offensive in Palestinian towns and villages, calling the operation an obstacle to starting peace talks.

"I came here not knowing how long the operation would go on," Powell said. "We had heard everything from a couple more weeks to a couple more months. I leave here able to say to the president, it wasn't immediate but it is now coming to an end."

Powell stopped in Cairo on his way home, but a planned meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was abruptly canceled without explanation. Powell said he was told Mubarak was "indisposed."

Bush, in a speech at Virginia Military Institute, offered next steps for all sides, saying the Palestinian Authority "must act must act on its words of condemnation of terror." Israel, he said, "must continue its withdrawal and all Arab states must step up to their responsibilities"

"The Egyptians and Jordanians and Saudis have helped in the wider war on terrorism and they must help confront terrorism in the Middle East," Bush said.

In a news conference before heading home, Powell said he would return to the region "to move ahead" with efforts to get peace negotiations on track.

He gave no date and said in the meantime, CIA Director George Tenet, U.S. mediator Anthony Zinni and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns will try to improve security and direct the two sides to peace making.

Tenet is considering going to the region next week, but no final decision has been made by the White House or the CIA director, a U.S. official said. That's one of the things Bush and Powell will discuss when they meet Thursday morning at the White House, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Also on the agenda is the timing of when Powell will return and on the possibilities of a peace conference.

"There can be no peace without security, but there can be no security without peace," Powell said.

On that front, Powell said the biggest problem was Israel's determination to arrest Palestinians in Ramallah accused of attacks on Israel. He said American diplomats would try to work something out between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

In the meantime, Powell said a cease-fire cannot be imposed while Israeli troops remain on the West Bank.

After their meeting, Arafat focused on Israel's siege of his battered compound and appealed for international help.

"I have to ask the whole international world, I have to ask excellency President Bush, I have to ask the United Nations is this acceptable that I can't go outside the door?" he said, his voice rising with apparent exasperation. Just next door, Israeli gunners peeked through half-opened windows and Israeli tanks ensured the confinement of the Palestinian leader.

"They are returning," Arafat said, referring to Israel's latest surge into Palestinian areas, after Sharon had said he would withdraw Israeli troops within a week from all towns and villages except Ramallah and Bethlehem. The Palestinian leader called Israel's siege of the holy Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem "shameful."

Sharon adviser Dore Gold said Powell had not come away empty-handed, and faulted Palestinians for the limited results of his visit.

"Secretary Powell goes away with a tangible Israeli timeline to withdraw its forces from Palestinian cities and bring the current operation to a close," Gold said. "Unfortunately, Yasser Arafat has not reciprocated, has not offered a meaningful cease-fire. ... Therefore, unfortunately, the cup is half-empty and it's half-empty because of Palestinian refusal."

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat countered that it was the Israelis who were to blame, saying, "All we can say is Sharon did a good job to torpedo the secretary's mission here."

Powell openly appealed to Arafat to arrest terrorists. Delay, he said, is hurting his pursuit of statehood.

"I have made it clear to him the world is waiting for him to make a strategic choice and lead his people away from violence," Powell said. "Statements, as we all know, now are not enough. ... It's what we see him do that will be the important measurement as we move forward."

But Powell said the Palestinians insist they cannot crack down on militants while their security apparatus is unable to function in the face of the Israeli incursions.

"Cease-fire is not a relevant term at the moment," Powell said, adding that conditions may allow for that later "so one can have not just the statement of a cease-fire but the reality."

Powell said that while Israel was not pulling out "as quickly as we would have liked, it is under way."

"I take the prime minister at his word that he is going to conclude it in the next few days or week or so," Powell said.

Powell said he urged Israel to ease its confinement of Arafat at his headquarters, and allow the Palestinian leader the ability to communicate with the outside world and his people.

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity aboard Air Force One, suggested there would be no consequences in U.S. policy tied to the failure of the Israelis and Palestinians to do more to bow to U.S. demands. The official added that the United States cannot dictate who leads the Palestinian people, suggesting the administration would continue to work with Arafat.

As for the possibility of a peace conference, Powell said both Sharon and Arafat had expressed interest, as had other Arab leaders, but there was no timetable. Its purpose, he said, would be to "restore hope, reaffirm the urgency of a comprehensive settlement and resume direct negotiations in order to achieve a comprehensive settlement.

Bush and his national security team are to be briefed Thursday on the peace conference idea, said the senior U.S. official.

Inside Arafat's headquarters, guards reported that conditions had improved somewhat since Powell's first visit on Sunday. They said Israel had turned up the water pressure, permitted more electricity to flow and allowed limited deliveries of food, bottled water and medical supplies.

Still, Makmoud Issa, in charge of Arafat's security force, said that conditions in "jail would be better."

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