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Middle East: Leaders Agree To Talks Following Powell Trip

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is in the Middle East in a new attempt to push the peace process forward between Israel and the Palestinians. News reports from the region say Powell's visit did not appear to achieve a breakthrough. But RFE/RL reports that Powell's visit may have helped bring the two sides together for the first time in years.

Washington, 13 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers are expected to meet later this week in their first top-level talks since the collapse of U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations at Camp David in late 2000.

Ending 31 months of official estrangement, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is expected to meet with the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, on 16 May, four days before he meets with U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House. A venue for the talks has yet to be given.

The announcement by Palestinian diplomats in Jerusalem yesterday, confirmed by a senior Israeli official, came after intense American pressure following a visit to the region by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. Powell was attempting to drum up support for the new "road map" peace plan that calls for an end to violence, a halt to Jewish settlement construction, and the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

The news appears to contradict initial reports that the visit by Powell had achieved little after Sharon failed to endorse the road map, which was drawn up by Washington together with the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia. Sharon has given U.S. officials a list of suggestions to amend the road map. Abbas said Palestinians have accepted the plan.

Appearing with Sharon at a news conference in Jerusalem on 11 May, Powell praised Abbas for his stated commitment to fight terrorism. "We welcome the positive political steps already taken by Palestinian officials towards reform and towards peace, but we must also see rapid decisive action by the Palestinians to disarm and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure. Without such action, our best efforts will fail," Powell said.

Most U.S. media outlets had given mixed reviews to Powell, saying he had little impact on Sharon, who appeared to rule out a freeze in Jewish settlement activity in Palestinian areas -- a key part of the peace plan.

But the State Department fired back yesterday, suggesting the press had hastily judged Powell's visit, which included a stop in Cairo before moving on to Jordan and Saudi Arabia today. "The secretary has had good meetings at all of his stops and will continue on in the discussions with others in the region," State Department spokesman Phillip Reeker said.

In his first peace mission to the region in 13 months, Powell sought to persuade the Israelis to take some steps to improve the lives of Palestinians. Israel responded by freeing 180 detained Palestinians and allowing 25,000 Palestinian workers to enter Israel.

But Palestinians complained that the gesture was far too little and that the detainees had, in fact, been illegal workers in Israel whose jail terms were about to end, not convicted militants.

Israel, in any case, quickly reversed course. Citing security concerns, Israel reimposed a travel ban on the Gaza Strip, which residents called the most sweeping restrictions on the area in years. The Israeli army later said its soldiers had shot dead three Palestinians in clashes in the Gaza Strip yesterday.

Despite the lack of concessions from Israel, White House national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice told Reuters in an interview that Powell had made "good progress."

University of Michigan professor Raymond Tanter is a former Middle East expert with the Pentagon and the National Security Council of former President Ronald Reagan. Asked to rate Powell's trip, Tanter told RFE/RL: "I don't see his trip as a disaster because he wasn't able to get the sides to make any compromises. I think Secretary Powell is trying to keep the ball in play, he's trying to kick the ball down the field. He's trying to leverage the military victory in Iraq in order to bring about some kind of movement on the road map."

Tanter added that Powell's most important achievement was likely just meeting Abbas, which he said helped improve the new leader's standing both internationally and among Palestinians.

Powell said yesterday he could make do with small practical steps while Israelis and Palestinians work out their differences in direct talks.

In her interview, Rice described the road map as a way to move ahead on the vision Bush laid out in a speech on 24 June for two states -- Israel and Palestine -- to live side by side in security and peace. She said Bush will press both sides to start implementing the peace plan but will not get bogged down in negotiating the details of the road map.

But Tanter said there's a substantial "gap" in content between the road map and Bush's June speech. The speech said a democratic upheaval among Palestinians and sidelining long-time leader Yasser Arafat were key conditions for resuming the peace process.

But the road map, which has been strongly promoted by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, puts less emphasis on Palestinian reform and instead requires reciprocal steps from two sides seen largely as moral equals.

"Blair and the various parts of the international community have pushed very hard for the road map. And the president has said yes to the road map, but he hasn't backed off from 24 June. So there is a gap in American policy right now. There's a gap between the White House statement and the road map," Tanter said.

Bush's June speech appears to agree with Sharon's position, which demands demonstrable progress by the Palestinian government in cracking down on militants and keeping the calm for an extended period before Israel makes any concessions.

U.S. officials told reporters traveling with Powell that Abbas told the secretary that "there is already a firm commitment" to dismantle the radical groups. But Palestinian officials say they need some signs that Israel will ease its military crackdown to enable Abbas to act against militants.

Yet some analysts question the new Palestinian leader's ability to effectively stop terrorism. "The problem has always been controlling the extremists. And the Palestinians, in particular, have been not terribly adept at achieving that. And I see no evidence that the current Palestinian leadership is going to be any better at reining in Hamas and Hezbollah and the other Islamic extremists," said Ted Galen Carpenter of Washington's Cato Institute think tank.

Many observers say any significant progress in restarting the peace progress will require direct involvement from the U.S. president. The last big push for peace came in late 2000, when then-President Bill Clinton spent his last days in office in a failed search for a settlement. It was also the last time an Israeli prime minister met with the top Palestinian leader.

Yet Tanter questioned the extent to which Bush, increasingly focused on his re-election bid next year, will be willing to get directly involved in the Mideast peace process. With Americans concerned with the poor U.S. economy -- and the unlikelihood of achieving a breakthrough in the Middle East -- Tanter said Bush's senior political adviser Karl Rove will make sure the president is focused on other things.

"It would be unwise for the president to get involved in the Arab-Israel issue in general and in the Palestinian issue in particular. If I were Karl Rove, I would say: 'Leave this in Powell's hands. The election is coming up! And the economy is coming up!' The president is going to start distancing himself away from Iraq, especially if it starts to deteriorate. And the last thing he wants to do is take on the Palestinian issue," Tanter said.

That means, Tanter said, that Washington is likely to wait for major progress on the Palestinian side, without forcing the issue with Israel, whose supporters in the U.S. constitute a key electoral base.

An unidentified senior Israeli official told "The Washington Post" that Powell did not push Sharon to accept the road map. Powell said that in the absence of an Israeli endorsement of the plan, the important thing is for both sides to start talking and to find common ground to continue doing so.