Time to stop setting conditions for Mideast talks, Powell says

Secretary of state plans to meet with Arafat and Sharon in next days


MADRID, Spain - Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday that he intended to meet with Yasser Arafat this weekend and suggested it was time for all parties to stop setting conditions and move toward serious peace talks "that will get us what we want - which is a state, which is peace, living side by side with Israel."

Senior U.S. officials said for the first time that Powell was prepared not only to meet with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel in Jerusalem on Friday, but also with Arafat in Ramallah on Saturday, with Sunday and Monday open for shuttling between the two if progress warranted it.

Powell said he had not set a date for leaving the Middle East and added that while "there are limits, of course, I'm prepared to stay for some while."

"I think this is the time for all of us to recognize that this kind of activity - suicide bombing, killing of people, the response that comes in return to all this - has to be brought to an end," Powell said at a news conference in Cairo after meeting with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt before flying here to meet with European officials.

"And it is not helpful to try and sequence it, because we'll never get it sequenced properly."

It was the second consecutive day that he had absorbed the brunt of Arab anger over the current Israeli occupation of Palestinian areas. In Cairo yesterday, Egyptian officials joined other moderate Arab states in demanding that Israel withdraw before they help the United States press for an end to Palestinian attacks on Israelis.

In response, Powell made his strongest statements yet that the United States was ready to move aggressively into political discussions with Israelis and Palestinians, despite discouraging conditions on the ground.

He also repeated that the United States was prepared to send some "small number" of civilians to help monitor a cease-fire, if one can be reached.

Powell said he had spoken Tuesday morning with Sharon, who reaffirmed "his commitment to bring this to an end as quick as he can and his commitment to moving forward, not only with security discussions but also with a political process that will find a way forward."

Later, speaking to reporters aboard his plane, Powell elaborated, addressing the nearly yearlong effort to return to comprehensive peace talks only after the adoption of a cease-fire plan sketched by CIA Director George J. Tenet and "confidence-building" measures outlined by an international commission headed by former Sen. George J. Mitchell.

Powell said the effort had become so mired in recriminations over continuing violence that "people were losing the original point and focus in Mitchell, which was negotiations."

Now, Powell said, "We're going to have to act a lot quicker, because people are looking for a political discussion, a political negotiation, in addition to a cease-fire."

In his earlier remarks, he expressed hope that Israel's initial withdrawals Monday were "the beginning of the end" of its West Bank operation, but he repeated, "We must expedite the end of this operation and the withdrawal."

Powell's comments amounted to his bluntest acknowledgment that the Mitchell plan's provision, and the Bush administration's insistence, that a cease-fire serve as the gateway to substantive discussions had not worked.

But he said the cease-fire plan and the Mitchell report, which calls for Israel to freeze the expansion of Jewish settlements and for the Palestinians to crack down on violence, were still a viable path to negotiations on a more comprehensive settlement.

That assertion was echoed by the Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Maher, at a joint news conference: "We already have many documents to work for the political negotiations."

A senior administration official traveling with Powell said, "The challenge is to get both sides to dive in at once."

Last night Powell expressed satisfaction that today the United States expected that Israel would permit some of Arafat's senior aides to visit him in his shattered compound in Ramallah and "empower them so that they can talk to us."

Powell said the United States had reached out to Syria and, through intermediaries, to Iran to ask them to help contain tensions on Israel's northern border with Lebanon, where the militant Hezbollah militia group has claimed responsibility for recent rocket attacks that led to skirmishes.

The State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, announced that Powell would arrive in Israel late tomorrow after meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan, and not Friday morning as originally envisioned.

He described the decision as based on scheduling and convenience, but its symbolism could not be lost on Arab leaders, including King Mohammed VI of Morocco, who greeted Powell at the beginning of his mission Monday by asking why he was not going to Jerusalem sooner.

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