Bush sending Powell to seek Mideast truce

U.S. calls on Israel to withdraw forces, says terror must end

`Enough is enough'

President contends Arafat is betraying hopes of Palestinians

April 05, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush, acting yesterday to prevent instability throughout the Middle East, ordered Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to the region to broker a truce and prepare the ground for peace talks.

The president, intervening more forcefully in the conflict, called on Israel to begin withdrawing its troops and tanks from Palestinian cities in the West Bank and demanded a halt to Palestinian terror attacks.

"Storms of violence cannot go on," he said. "Enough is enough."

Bush insisted that the Palestinian Authority and Arab states act to deny aid or encouragement to suicide bombers, whom he said are blocking the way to peace and depriving young Palestinians and Israelis alike of a better future.

The president denounced Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for having "missed his opportunities and betrayed the hopes of the people he's supposed to lead." While he stopped short of severing ties with Arafat, Bush said that "responsible Palestinian leaders and Israel's Arab neighbors must step forward and show the world they are truly on the side of peace."

The president said Israel should avoid new incursions into Palestinian territory, halt the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, "show a respect for and concern about the dignity of the Palestinian people," and lift restrictions on the movement of ordinary Palestinians.

"The world finds itself at a critical moment. This is a conflict that can widen or an opportunity we can seize," Bush said in an 18-minute speech in the White House Rose Garden, with Powell by his side.

A senior administration official said Bush was compelled to act now to prevent the worsening violence from spreading beyond Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and seriously damaging the peaceful relations previously established between Israel and two of its Arab neighbors, Egypt and Jordan.

Israeli and Palestinian officials welcomed the initiative.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry, in a statement, said: "We heard positively the words of Bush about the need to stop the terror. We welcome Powell's mission to the region, and we will do everything so that his mission will be successful."

However, Israel gave no indication that it planned to start withdrawing its forces. Last night, the United States joined a unanimous United Nations Security Council in demanding that Israel pull its troops out of West Bank cities "without delay."

The Palestinian Authority announced that it accepts Bush's new peace effort "without conditions," but its chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, branded Bush's criticism of Arafat as "unjustified and unacceptable."

The decision to dispatch Powell to the Middle East came a week into Israel's biggest offensive since its invasion of Lebanon a decade ago - a broad assault on militant groups and the Palestinian Authority in which Israeli tanks and troops have taken over most West Bank cities and kept Arafat trapped with guards and supporters in his ruined compound in Ramallah.

Israel launched the operation two days after a suicide bomber plunged the nation into grief by killing 22 Israelis at a Passover Seder, the traditional meal marking the Jews' flight from Egypt.

Bush initially expressed understanding for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to retaliate, and avoided publicly endorsing a U.N. Security Council demand last Saturday for Israel to withdraw, even though the United States voted in favor of the resolution.

"But as the [Israeli] response picked up more steam and it went in more directions, it started to have a greater effect than just going in and rooting out a few terrorists," and began to have worldwide repercussions, the senior Bush administration official said.

Angry mobs poured into the streets of Arab cities, demanding that governments in the region take tougher action against Israel. Egypt, the first Arab nation to make peace with Israel, responded by sharply reducing diplomatic contact with the Jewish state and Jordan threatened similar action. European leaders and members of Congress stepped up pressure on Bush to take a stronger role.

Bush did not say that Israel had to begin withdrawing its troops immediately, giving Israel a few days more to conduct sweeps to arrest militants.

Until yesterday, the United States had put all of its efforts into trying to secure a cease-fire, bowing to Israeli demands not to initiate peace talks between the two sides while terrorism and shooting continued.

But Arab and European allies have been united in demanding that the United States spearhead a new peace process that offers Palestinian leaders an incentive to curb violence and crack down on terrorists.

Bush said Powell will seek broad international support for a peace agreement that provides for a Palestinian state that is "politically and economically viable" and the right of Israel to live within secure and recognized borders. He did not spell out how much territory such a state would require.

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