In a bid to "re-energize" the stalled Mideast peace process in the wake of Yasser Arafat's death, Secretary of State Colin Powell made his first visit to Israel and the West Bank in 18 months on Monday, where he met with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
After his meeting with leaders on both sides of the disputed region, Powell said he sensed an encouraging "new attitude" that both sides were willing to re-engage in the peace process.
Powell stressed that a major step in the ongoing peace process is ensuring successful Palestinian elections in January and saw encouraging signs on both sides that those elections will happen.
Powell’s meeting in Jericho with Palestinian leaders — acting Palestinian President Rauhi Fattouh, PLO chief Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, and Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath among others — marked the first time Powell has met with Palestinian leaders since Arafat's passing.
Powell told reporters in Jericho that the United States wants to see a Palestinian state as quickly as possible, but would not fix a date to it.
"People have asked me whether it can be done by the end of 2005 or the end of 2009," he said. "The answer to that question is it can only be determined by what happens on the ground and by actions that happen in the area, and it can only happen when the two parties themselves negotiate with each other on all of the outstanding issues, especially the final-status issues."
After his Jericho meetings, Powell also strongly suggested that U.S. and international financial assistance to Palestinian elections would be forthcoming, once he briefs the other members of the so-called "Quartet" — Russia, the United Nations and the European Union — in Sharm el-Sheikh on Tuesday, followed by administration figures in Washington.
However, Powell would not reveal the amount of assistance the Palestinians said they needed. Powell also held out the possibility of mobilizing international election observers, possibly some from in the region, to monitor the elections scheduled for Jan. 9.
Meetings in Jerusalem
Prior to going to Jericho, Powell met with both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom in Jerusalem.
At a joint press conference, Powell said he was pleased with Israel's "willingness to cooperate and coordinate with the Palestinian Authority" as they get ready for January elections. Powell mentioned in particular Israeli efforts to enable Palestinians in East Jerusalem to participate in the elections.
For his part, Foreign Minister Shalom said Israel "will do everything that will ensure the sovereignty of Israel in Jerusalem" and noted that in 1996 Palestinians there were not able to go to a polling station in Jerusalem, but rather voted by mail.
Following his meetings with officials on both sides, Powell said he was encouraged by Israeli and Palestinian apparent willingness to coordinate on election issues, and noted their successful coordination on Arafat's funeral arrangements.
In an interview with Israel Channel 1 today, Powell said he sensed a "new attitude" among Palestinian leaders when he met with them today.
"I sense a new attitude. I sense an understanding that an opportunity has presented itself and if both sides work together to make sure that the Palestinians have a successful election on the 9th of January, and to that election bestow the legitimacy of the electorate on a new president, then we have some opportunities to move even more aggressively in the months after that toward the disengagement from Gaza. So, I believe there is a new attitude and we must take advantage of this new attitude."
Powell stressed the road map as the way forward and that all steps must be followed, including an end to Palestinian incitement of violence.
Powell said if the violence goes down, he predicted that restrictive measures taken by Israel will reduce.
"If terror goes down, incitement goes down and the kinds of actions that Israel has found it necessary to take in the past will go down as well. That's what we are looking for, for both sides to be able to act in concert with one another and in a responsible manner," Powell said after meeting with Shalom.
A key issue Powell stressed during his meeting was that of freedom of movement for Palestinians in the lead up to the election, for both Palestinian candidates to campaign and for voters to get to the polls on election day.
The issue of freedom of movement largely translates to redeployment of some Israeli troops and removal of certain checkpoints, but the commitments publicly expressed by Foreign Minister Shalom were short on details.
In a general statement, Shalom said there would be freedom of movement, as long as it doesn't affect Israeli security.
"We will do everything we can in order to remove any obstacle that they [the Palestinians] might face in their preparations to have their elections...we are not going to do anything that might damage or harm the security of the people of the State of Israel."
Efforts to control terror by Palestinians
Perhaps to that end, Powell described Palestinian efforts to stop violence and encourage the political process.
Regarding militant groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Powell said Palestinian leaders told him "they are working hard with all of them [the different groups] to try to draw them into the political process and away from any acts of terror or violence that would essentially stop the political process."
Powell went on to say some groups would be "easier to manage than others, but they are working with all, and trying to find ways to integrate those that have had a violent history into this process."
And on the question of whether Israel would release the popular Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti from prison, as some have speculated, Shalom said he should stay in jail where he is serving a life sentence.
Powell said the subject of Barghouti — who if released could potentially win a Palestinian election - did not come up in his discussions with Israelis.
However, he told a registered Palestinian voter, whom he met when touring the Jericho district office of the Central Election Commission, that the Palestinian's release is a "sensitive issue."
Powell added, I don't know if he has plans to participate in the election."