U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Friday that peace in the Middle East could not be rushed, because Palestinians must first elect a president and both sides must begin to carry out the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan.
“The road map is the way, and the road map is quite detailed with respect to the obligations and the responsibilities of the parties,” he said at a news conference in the Netherlands after talks with leaders of the European Union.
Powell’s comments could dent Palestinian hopes for a quick return to negotiations after Britain and Israel suggested a peace conference Monday after the election Jan. 9 of a successor to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
Road map crippled by roadside
The road map calls for reciprocal steps toward the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip next year, including demands that the Palestinians halt militant violence and Israel freeze settlement activity.
Neither side has yet met its commitments under the plan crafted by the Quartet of the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, and it has lain dormant for months.
“We have had so many false starts with this peace process over the years that I think it’s important for us to ... wait until there is a good election on January 9, we hope, that gives us a Palestinian president with the mandate of the Palestinian people,” Powell said.
“Then let that president create a government that is functioning, that is able to exercise control. And then we have the whole issue of [Israeli] disengagement from Gaza and the four settlements in the West Bank to get us into the road map,” he added.
“And if things are quiet, and if the commitments that the two parties have made right now toward getting a successful election under their belt and then moving forward, then we are on a path to, perhaps, a path to the goal we all seek, which is a Palestinian state,” Powell said.
Powell welcomed a British proposal for a peace conference in London early next year, but he said implementing the road map remained the priority.
“I don’t sense that it is supposed to be ‘final status’ negotiations,” he said.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had long resisted the idea of a peace summit, fearing it would be put pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians.
But a senior Israeli official said Sharon would be willing to consider such a meeting if Israel and Washington’s favored candidate, moderate former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, won the Palestinian presidency and other key conditions were met.
Powell sees European thaw
Powell spent several hours conferring with EU Secretary General Javier Solana and with officials from the Netherlands, which holds the EU presidency as part of a rotating system.
He arrived here in the morning from Belgium, where he attended a meeting of NATO foreign ministers after spending two days in Bulgaria for discussions with the 55-nation Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Powell’s goal has been to restore confidence between the United States and Europe; President Bush himself will visit the continent in February toward that objective.
Powell said differences growing out of the Iraq war “are now being closed,” citing a European commitment to send additional forces to Afghanistan and additional trainers to Iraq, cooperation on Sudan and a joint effort to help avert a political crisis in the Ukraine.
He said the disagreements over Iraq had sometimes been exaggerated, but he acknowledged the existence of some “fissures.”
Powell planned an early evening departure for Morocco for an international conference on political, economic and social development in the Arab world.