Powell calls fighting ‘unbearable,’
WASHINGTON (AP) – Declaring violence in the Middle East ”unbearable” and a threat to the wider region, Secretary of State Colin Powell urged Israel to stop expanding Jewish settlements and Palestinian leaders to do more to end attacks on Israel.
”I hope both sides will be rather sobered by the events of the last several days,” Powell said Monday as he signaled a more active role by the Bush administration in the bloody conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
He made clear his goal was not only to stop the fighting but to find a way to resume negotiations. But, Powell said, ”Unless the violence goes down, there is no prospect for negotiations.”
Powell followed up his statements with telephone calls to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestinian Authority and Palestine Liberation Organization.
In retooling Bush administration policy, Powell appointed a seasoned U.S. diplomat, William Burns, to oversee the Arab-Israeli dispute and held out the possibility of playing a direct role in negotiations if they can be reopened. The new positioning lined up the Bush administration with its predecessors over 20 years in declaring Jewish settlements a problem.
Powell, who leaves Tuesday for Africa and Europe, has left open the possibility of a meeting with Palestinian leader Arafat.
”At the moment, I don’t have any plans to see anybody from the region on this trip,” he said. ”But things can change. And I always have the option of doing something at some point in the future.”
When Burns goes to Israel, ”He will once again point out to the Israeli side the difficulties associated with their settlement activities and how it is going to be a key feature and a key element that has to be dealt with,” Powell said.
The appointment of the current U.S. ambassador to Jordan, who after Senate confirmation will double as assistant secretary of state for the Near East, begins to give U.S. activity in the region the urgency and special attention it had when Dennis Ross held the post of U.S. mediator for 12 years under three secretaries of state.
Initially, the Bush administration portrayed the Arab-Israeli conflict as only one of many problems in the region that involved U.S. interests. It took no positions on the contentious Israeli-Palestinian issues.
But Powell’s embrace of a fact-finding commission’s report that urged Israel to stop building new homes for Jewish settlers or adding to existing ones puts the Bush administration directly into the dispute.
The Arabs consider the land theirs and Jewish settlements an attempt to prevent the Palestinians from taking it over for a state with Jerusalem as the capital.
Most recent Israeli government figures show that 163,000 Jews live in 122 settlements on the West Bank and 6,000 in 16 settlements in Gaza.
Endorsing the findings of a fact-finding commission headed by former Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell, Powell said unless ”progress” is forthcoming on settlements, ”It is very, very difficult to see how we can get into a cooling-off period and a process that leads to negotiations.”
”Both sides must avoid unilateral acts that prejudice the outcome of permanent-status negotiations and that could be perceived by the other side as provocative,” Powell said in a statement.
He coupled his stand on settlements with an appeal to Palestinian leaders to do all they can to halt the fighting.
Israel has stopped building new settlements. At the same time, it defends construction on existing ones as accommodations to ”natural growth.” That concept now puts Israel directly at odds with the Bush administration. In another echo of past administrations’ high-profile engagement in the Arab-Israeli dispute, Powell said he was ready to play whatever role is useful should negotiations get started. But he also said ”shuttle diplomacy is not what we need right now,” steering clear – for the time being – of trying to shape terms of an accord through talks with leaders in the region.
What Powell said is needed right away is a realization that there is no military solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
With violence escalating, Powell said, ”I hope both sides will now realize that this is unbearable and cannot continue without the whole region breaking out into even more serious conflagration.”
”And this is the time to start moving down the ladder,” he said.
On the Net: State Department’s Near East desk: http://www.state.gov/p/nea/
Text of Powell’s statement: http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2001/index.cfm?docid2965
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After a period of dry, warm weather, winter returns this week to Lake Tahoe.