Powell hopes to pull sides together for Middle East peace
JERUSALEM -- Secretary of State Colin Powell embarked Sunday on a mission to revive the Middle East peace process after Yasser Arafat's death, saying he will ask Israel to help with the upcoming Palestinian election to pick a successor.
Israel said it would consider pulling back troops from disputed areas in the West Bank.
On his way to the Middle East, Powell told reporters on his plane that U.S.-Palestinian cooperation in setting up the elections "will encourage a degree of cooperation that can spread into other areas."
"This is a moment of opportunity," Powell said. "I'll be encouraging both sides to do everything they can to make sure that this election comes off and that the maximum number of Palestinians get the opportunity to participate."
He said there were "many things" the Israelis could do to help, and he will discuss them during a today meeting with Israeli officials.
Powell arrived in Israel hours after Assistant Secretary of State William Burns held talks with both sides, becoming the first senior U.S. diplomat to meet with top Palestinians in several months. Powell has separate meetings scheduled with Israeli and Palestinian officials today.
The visits are part of an international push for progress toward a new Israel-Palestinian accord after Arafat's death Nov. 11 and ahead of Jan. 9 elections to pick his successor as president of the Palestinian Authority. The United States and Israel boycotted Arafat, charging he was tainted with terrorism.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw will visit the region this week, and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos is expected Dec. 2.
"I am here to stress strong American support for the Palestinian election," Burns said after meeting interim Palestinian Authority President Rauhi Fattouh in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Near Ramallah in Beitunia, Israeli special forces killed a Palestinian fugitive and two other militants in a car Sunday, the military said. The military said the Palestinians opened fire first. Palestinian security officials said the three were members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent offshoot of the ruling Fatah party.
Israeli troops also shot and killed an armed Palestinian who tried to attack a Gaza road used by Jewish settlers, the Israeli army and Islamic Jihad said.
In the meeting with Burns, Palestinian leaders asked the United States to pressure Israel to remove troops from West Bank cities and towns to allow campaigning and a free election.
"We are determined to do everything we can to help in that process and we also support steps by Israel which are needed to facilitate this election," Burns said, without elaborating.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Israel has "every intention of redeploying [troops] so as to allow them to have their process of election."
Shortly after the latest round of Mideast violence erupted in 2000, Israel sent troops back into West Bank areas ceded to the Palestinians under interim peace accords. Troops set up dozens of roadblocks and cut off cities and towns, often confining hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to their home communities.
Palestinians have had only one general election, in 1996. Elections have been scheduled several times in recent years but then canceled, as Palestinians said they could not carry out a campaign with the Israelis in control of the territory.
Now, Israel appears ready to cooperate.
Israel has explained its draconian security measures, which have contributed to severe disruption of the Palestinian economy and widespread poverty, by pointing to more than 100 Palestinian suicide bombings in the past four years and the need to prevent further attacks.
However, Arafat's death has softened the Israeli line and raised world expectations for a thaw.
Regev said the new Palestinian leadership "could help us by coming down on the terrorists," but he did not make that a condition for an Israeli withdrawal of troops.
For their part, Palestinians say Israel is to blame for the violence and should resume peace talks with no preconditions.
Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians were trying, through the Americans, to set up a meeting with their Israeli counterparts to discuss elections arrangements.
"We are expressing a readiness to meet with the Israeli side in order to coordinate with them immediately the administrative and security arrangements," Erekat said.
Burns, who met separately Sunday with Israeli national security adviser Giora Eiland, said he hoped the Palestinian elections, together with an Israeli plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements, could jump-start the stalled "road map" peace plan.
President Bush launched the peace plan last year. It envisaged three stages leading to a Palestinian state, but neither side fulfilled the initial steps and it faltered.
In Israeli politics, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon regained some prestige Sunday when his rebellious Likud Party convention installed his candidates to lead party bodies. Earlier this year, the party voted twice against Sharon's plan to pull out of Gaza and part of the West Bank.