Secretary of State Colin Powell made a new push for Mideast peace Monday, promising Palestinians full American support for elections to replace Yasser Arafat and receiving Israeli assurances of a smooth path to the ballot box, including eased travel restrictions and letting Palestinians in east Jerusalem vote by absentee ballot.
In one of his last overseas trips as the top U.S. diplomat, Powell sat down with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, seeking to capitalize on new realities created by Arafat’s death.
“I have come to bring a message of peace and commitment from President Bush that he wants to move forward on the path of peace, to take advantage of the new opportunities that are before us,” Powell said in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Sense of excitement
Much of the discussions with the leaders focused on the Jan. 9 elections for Palestinian Authority president. Powell also visited a voter registration center in the West Bank town of Jericho, listening to Palestinians’ pleas for a state of their own.
Though they mourn Arafat, many Palestinians feel a sense of excitement and possibility at the end of his one-man rule, anticipating the election that could help give them the first real democracy in the Arab world.
“Now the father is dead and everyone in the family has the right to express his own views,” said Moenis Abu Imran, a shopkeeper in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Nevertheless, extremists on both sides pose a threat, and it’s far from clear if Palestinian and Israeli leaders will have enough confidence and credibility to make the painful concessions required for any peace deal.
Israeli leaders assured Powell they will do their utmost to allow the vote to take place, including easing travel restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Powell said the Israelis expressed a willingness to allow Palestinian residents of east Jerusalem to vote, a contentious issue because Israel fears doing so could undermine its claims to the entire city. Powell said both sides agreed that the model used in the last Palestinian elections in 1996 — allowing east Jerusalem residents to cast absentee ballots — could be followed again.
In a sign of an improving atmosphere after four years of deadly violence, Israeli officials also said they are willing to renew talks with the Palestinians on some issues, including security, and to coordinate the aftermath of Israel’s planned withdrawal from Gaza and part of the West Bank in 2005.
Meeting with Abbas
Israel and the United States had refused to talk to Arafat in his final years, calling him an unacceptable negotiating partner because of what they said was his support of terror. Arafat died Nov. 11 in France at age 75.
On Monday, Powell met with interim PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and interim Palestinian Authority President Rauhi Fattouh, among others.
The Fatah Central Committee chose Abbas as the party’s presidential candidate late Monday. Abbas, 69, Arafat’s longtime deputy as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, already has been named head of the PLO. If elected president of the Palestinian Authority, he would inherit two of Arafat’s main titles.
Powell said both Israel and the Palestinians must return to the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan, which calls for a Palestinian state after requiring Palestinians to dismantle terror groups and Israel to freeze settlement building in the West Bank and Gaza. The plan had been all but dead because of each side’s failure to implement the initial requirements.
Powell: Return to road map
When people in Jericho pressed Powell for a timetable for creation of a Palestinian state, he said: “It won’t be determined by picking a date, but by progress and action on the ground.”
Powell announced his resignation last week. He told reporters in Jericho that despite changes in the Bush administration, President Bush’s commitment to a Palestinian state “remains constant.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said it is in Israel’s interest to see the Palestinian elections go forward, adding they could pave the way for a new leadership “with whom we can sit down.”
“I have reassured the secretary today that Israel will do everything in its power to ensure their smooth running,” he said, adding Palestinians would have “freedom of movement.”
Shalom did not say whether Israel would pull back troops. He said Israel would coordinate the election with the Palestinians but would not compromise on security.
Seeking security assurances
An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Shalom also told Powell Israel is willing to resume talks with the Palestinians on other issues, including security.
Israel reoccupied West Bank towns during a 2002 military offensive aimed at halting Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel. Troops have since withdrawn from some areas, but continue to enforce travel restrictions on Palestinians. Palestinians say they need freedom of movement for the campaign and the vote.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said Powell told Palestinian leaders “the United States will stand shoulder to shoulder with us to have free elections.”
Powell also reiterated that the Palestinians must rein in militants, saying: “We have to ensure that terrorism and violence will not be permitted once again to stop this process.”
Abbas is trying to persuade militant groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to halt violence during the election campaign, but it is not clear if they will do so.