As the United States presses on with its campaign against terrorism, Washington is stepping up efforts to end the violence in the Middle East as a first step toward resuming peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Yesterday, Secretary of State Colin Powell laid out the Bush administration's vision for the strife-torn region.
Washington, 20 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is making its strongest push yet on Middle East diplomacy, with Secretary of State Colin Powell calling for a resumption of peace talks aimed at eventually establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
In a much-anticipated speech yesterday at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, Powell said the U.S. is prepared to lead a major diplomatic effort to give Israelis and Palestinians a safer and more secure future after a year of nearly unrelenting violence: "We have a vision of a region where Israelis and Arabs can live together in peace, security, and dignity. We have a vision of a region where two states -- Israel and Palestine -- live side by side within secure and recognized borders."
However, Powell offered no new plan for the Middle East, saying U.S. diplomats will instead continue to follow the Mitchell plan as the basis for breaking the impasse. Both Palestinians and Israelis agreed in April to follow the plan by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, which provides a framework for achieving a lasting peace. The plan calls for a cease-fire and confidence-building measures leading to direct negotiations.
In the coming days, Powell said Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns will return to Israel for talks with both sides, along with retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni. Powell said that Zinni -- the former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East -- will stay in the region to work out the details of a cease-fire between Palestinians and Israelis.
The Palestinian leadership released a statement praising Powell's speech. It welcomed Powell's comments on the need for Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the necessity for the sides to reach a permanent solution to their conflict.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also welcomed Powell's remarks, while Israel Foreign Minister Shimon Peres called them "positive and full of goodwill." But Peres said "most of the work is still ahead."
Sharon said he has already appointed a negotiating team led by Peres to work with Zinni, whom one senior U.S. official described to RFE/RL as a tough, no-nonsense negotiator who will "cut through the garbage and not accept any posturing" from either side.
Martin Indyk, who was twice U.S. ambassador to Israel in the last seven years, said Zinni's appointment is a key step forward in the Bush administration's Mideast peace efforts. He said that, previously, the administration had left the matter in the hands of its ambassador to Israel, which he called insufficient given the gravity of the crisis.
Some 900 people -- mostly Palestinians -- have been killed since September 2000, when the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, began.
Richard Fairbanks was chief negotiator on the Middle East peace process for the administration of former President Ronald Reagan. Fairbanks, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, made this observation about Powell's remarks: "I think it's an attempt to revitalize the process at a difficult moment. I think it had things in the speech that both sides would like -- that is, the Israelis and the Palestinians -- and things in the speech that both sides would dislike. So I thought it was certainly an attempt to be even-handed and to re-seize the initiative with American leadership."
Powell, who has faced criticism for what has appeared to be the administration's distance from engaging in the Middle East peace process, slammed both sides for actions that continue to generate violence: "The Palestinian leadership must make a 100 percent effort to end violence and to end terror. There must be real results, not just words and declarations. Terrorists must be stopped before they act. The Palestinian leadership must arrest, prosecute, and punish the perpetrators of terrorist acts."
Powell added that Palestinians must finally affirm beyond any doubt that they accept the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state, and make it clear they wish to live peacefully beside Israel in a Palestinian state.
But Powell also called on Israel to end its "occupation" of some Palestinian territories -- which Indyk said is a significant statement for the Palestinians, who say the goal of their uprising has been to end such occupation. Powell made this observation: "Israeli settlement activity has severely undermined Palestinian trust and hope. It preempts and prejudges the outcome of negotiations and in doing so cripples chances for real peace and security."
Although a cease-fire will be the U.S.'s first aim in the Middle East, Powell offered no new ideas on how that elusive goal might be achieved. And, for now at least, he was silent on the two most vexing issues in the peace process: the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.