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Middle East: White House Says Critics Wrong To Focus Only On Israel

As U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell prepares for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is rejecting the idea that Israel is the only party in the Middle East that must act to end the current crisis. The White House says Bush believes the Palestinian Authority and Israel's Arab neighbors share in that responsibility. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully reports from Washington.

Washington, 12 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The White House says it is wrong for Israel's critics to focus on its refusal to withdraw its forces form the Palestinian lands immediately.

On 4 April, U.S. President George W. Bush publicly urged Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to begin the withdrawal. But Israeli troops for the most part have stayed put, and in some cases they have driven deeper into the territories.

Sharon says he will not end the operation until he has brought to justice those responsible for repeated suicide bombings that have killed dozens of Israeli civilians in 19 months of fighting. Governments around the world, citing a heavy Palestinian death toll, have said Sharon must heed Bush's call for a withdrawal.

On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said in Washington that Israel alone is not responsible for the violence that has crippled the peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Fleischer noted that, in his speech last week, Bush also called for the Palestinian Authority and its chairman, Yasser Arafat, to denounce the suicide bombings, and for Arab governments to stop contributing to the atmosphere of violence between Israel and the Palestinians.

"The [Israeli troop] withdrawals the president [Bush] called for are continuing, but the Arab nations, as well as the Palestinian Authority, were called on specifically to do certain things by this president, and the president is waiting to see results from them as well," Fleischer said.

Fleischer spoke as Bush's secretary of state, Colin Powell, was on his way to Jerusalem for crucial meetings with Sharon, to be held today, and with Arafat, which are expected Saturday. Since 8 April, Powell has met with Arab, European, and UN leaders in Morocco, Egypt, Spain, and Jordan in efforts to build a framework for getting Israel and the Palestinians to end the fighting and resume negotiations.

The White House spokesman did not say Bush's administration expects significant results from the secretary's trip. "The president hopes that the secretary, in his visits with Arab nations, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority, will be able to create an environment that reduces the violence, that hopefully leads to a cease-fire, that hopefully leads to a beginning of the political process once again in the Middle East. It's a very difficult mission; there is no guarantee of success."

Despite Fleischer's assertion that the world's focus should not be on Bush's call for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian territory, Powell says that issue is very much on his mind. Speaking Thursday in Madrid, where he had been meeting with European officials, Powell said he had spoken with Sharon about the withdrawal of some forces.

"I spoke to Prime Minister Sharon this morning and he noted that [the Israeli Defense Force] had left two [West Bank] towns and some 22 villages, but obviously there are other movements taking place. And so I think this will be something I'll have to discuss with Prime Minister Sharon in greater detail."

On 11 April, during a news conference after his meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah, Powell again expressed his interest in discussing Sharon's timetable for a withdrawal.

Powell said he expects to meet with Arafat on Saturday, but has not given a preview of what he expects to discuss with the Palestinian leader. Sharon has said that such a meeting would be a "tragic mistake." Nonetheless, Powell said he hopes Sharon will facilitate a meeting, and that he believes Sharon's remarks in no way jeopardize the peace mission.

According to Powell, if an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire can be reached, the U.S. will provide a small group of observers to monitor the truce. But he has made it clear that these monitors will not be allowed to be involved in any resumption of fighting.

At the Madrid news conference, Powell was joined by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. The two had just finished discussing their countries' plans to reduce their nuclear arsenals, as well as the Middle East. Ivanov said Moscow fully supports Powell's mission to restore the Middle East peace process.

"We want this mission to be successful and to bring real results and open up the path to the beginning of a way out of the conflict. I repeat -- open up the path; there will be no easy solutions. The mission is very difficult, but at the same time we are placing high hopes on it," Ivanov said.

On 10 April, while in Madrid, Powell received similar expressions of support from countries of the European Union, as well as from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. But they also made it clear that they opposed Sharon's hard-line policy, and they decried the loss of life, particularly among Palestinians.

That sentiment was echoed Thursday by Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, who spoke at EC headquarters in Brussels. "The humanitarian crisis must be ended immediately. Today, I made an appeal on a specific aspect of the humanitarian crisis, which is becoming tremendously worrying. In my previous statements, I have clearly referred to the systematic destruction of the administrative structures of the Palestinian Authority. We are heading toward an utterly intolerable situation for the Palestinian people," Prodi said.

With so much distrust between the Israelis and the Palestinians, as well as so much well-meaning advice from so many allies, some observers expect that even a diplomat with Powell's credentials cannot expect this peace mission to be a success. Powell was asked about that Thursday in Madrid.

"I don't like wallowing with pessimists, I'm going in here because it's necessary for me to go, it's necessary for me to go to represent [U.S.] President Bush and his desire to see this crisis brought to an end and get us back to a track that will lead to discussions," Powell said.

In fact, given the White House's low expectations outlined by the president's spokesman, Powell may achieve success in his mission, even if he does not achieve peace.