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Middle East: Powell Announces Plans For Peace Conference

Nineteen months after the start of the Palestinian "intifada" or uprising against Israel, the international community appears to be making headway -- albeit limited -- to end the crisis. After helping to secure Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's release this week, U.S. officials say they're optimistic more progress can be made and yesterday announced plans for a peace conference.

Washington, 3 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell announced yesterday that an international peace conference would meet early next summer to discuss how to settle the Middle East crisis, offering hope that the peace process can resume.

Powell made his announcement to reporters at the State Department after meeting with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

That "quartet" of leaders first met on 10 April in Madrid, where they backed a Mideast peace mission by Powell. Powell said the group will now seek to build on recent progress to push for a peaceful settlement to the crisis: "We committed ourselves to the promotion of serious and accelerated negotiations toward a settlement. We discussed how best to begin to prepare for an international conference meeting this summer."

Powell said the quartet's goals were to work to restore security to Israel and the Palestinians, meet the urgent humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people, and hold talks toward a full political settlement of the decades-long dispute: "We are working for realization of the vision expressed by President Bush on 4 April -- of a Middle East where two states, Israel and Palestine, live side by side in peace and security within internationally recognized borders."

He said they would spend the coming weeks discussing a set of principles that will be the basis for the meeting. The place, time and exact participants in the conference are still not known, he added.

The idea of an international conference has been talked about for weeks by U.S, European, Arab, and Israeli officials. But yesterday's announcement was the first confirmation that it will take place and officials said it was an important sign of hope that the peace process can resume.

Powell also said that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat now has a chance to show he can exercise responsible leadership and clamp down on violence. Arafat was freed earlier yesterday after being confined to his compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah by Israeli forces for more than a month.

Bush told a news conference earlier yesterday that Arafat must use his new-found freedom to show he can stop Palestinian violence such as suicide bombings. Bush also expressed optimism: "We're making good progress. There's a lot to be done. We're dealing with centuries and years of hatred -- and I understand that."

Bush also said Israel must negotiate an end to its "occupation" of Palestinian areas. This would pave the way for a Palestinian state, he said, but added that such a state "cannot be based on a foundation of terror or corruption."

Under the terms of a deal brokered by the U.S. with Saudi help, Arafat was released yesterday after being holed up for more than a month in his battered headquarters, which Israeli forces encircled following a string of Palestinian suicide bombings.

Still, analysts say a breakthrough is far from imminent.

But they call the deal -- which included agreement to allow U.S. and British monitors of six Palestinian prisoners wanted by Israel -- a step forward in the White House's rocky peace efforts. It also reportedly marked the start of a deep collaboration between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. toward a broad settlement.

"The New York Times" has reported that the two sides agreed last week -- during Saudi leader Crown Prince Abdullah's visit to America -- that Riyadh will pressure Arafat to rein in Palestinian violence while Bush will urge Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to withdraw his forces from the West Bank.

Last month, Abdullah won Arab backing for a peace initiative promising recognition of Israel and normal ties in exchange for a return to pre-1967 borders. The U.S.-Saudi deal would also involve pressure on Arafat from other Arab governments, such as Egypt and Jordan.

Bush, who is scheduled to meet next week in Washington with Sharon and Jordan's King Abdullah II, said Arab support for a settlement is vital: "I'm absolutely convinced it's going to require the efforts of the Saudis and the Jordanians and the Egyptians to help cement a lasting peace. And the crown prince is following up on his initiative -- and that's a positive development."

But fiery talk by Arafat just hours after his release irked U.S. and Israeli officials. Arafat emerged from his shattered headquarters flashing a V-for-victory sign. Then he toured Ramallah as he was thronged by Arab crowds. He promptly called the Israelis "terrorists, Nazis, and racists" and had this to say about the damage left behind by Israeli troops: "This is an international deep crime. This is the pure Nazist picture of this Israeli army and Israeli leadership."

Asked about his rhetoric, White House spokesman Fleischer said it was time for all parties to be constructive, not to speak ill of one another. Fleischer also said that Bush had no plans yet to meet with Arafat, whom he said still did not have the president's trust.

Meanwhile, Israeli spokesman Avi Pazner said Israeli officials were far from pleased by Arafat's remarks: "He [Arafat] can stop the violence, he can finish with terrorism, he can stop the bloodshed. This is now Arafat's decision to make. This can be a turning point in the situation here. Now, it is up to him to make the tough choices: Does he want to continue with the plight which he brought upon his people, or is he ready now to face reality. It is Arafat's choice."

Earlier, Israel was criticized by the EU and UN human rights chief Mary Robinson for not allowing a UN fact-finding team probe alleged Israeli atrocities at the Palestinian refugee camp of Jenin. The team was disbanded on 1 May after resistance from Israeli, which accused the UN group of being biased against the Jewish state.

Palestinians have accused the Israelis of a massacre of hundreds of civilians at Jenin. Israel says it killed some 50 mostly militant Palestinians and lost 23 of its soldiers in eight days of fierce fighting.

Human Rights Watch, a leading human rights organization, said after touring Jenin it had no evidence that a massacre took place, adding however that Israel may have killed innocent civilians.