Powell leaves, anger remains

Israelis, Palestinians continue to trade blame

No truce or clear withdrawal

Arafat still confined to Ramallah compound

April 18, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's Middle East peace mission ended in frustration yesterday with no Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, no end to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's confinement and no cease-fire.

The Israelis, Powell said, "are still pursuing an operation that they are bringing to a close"; the Palestinians are "not yet in a position to respond because the incursion has not yet ended."

"Cease-fire," he said, "is not a relevant term at the moment."

As Powell returned home, he left behind anger and disappointment on both sides. Once again, each side blamed the other for the lack of resolution.

"Secretary Powell goes away with a tangible Israeli timeline to withdraw its forces from Palestinian cities and bring the current operation to a close," said Dore Gold, an Israeli government adviser. "Unfortunately, Yasser Arafat has not reciprocated, has not offered a meaningful cease-fire."

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat placed the blame elsewhere: "All we can say is [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon did a good job to torpedo the secretary's mission here."

On his way home, Powell stopped in Cairo, Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak declined to meet with him, apparently expressing the Arab world's complaint that he should have put more pressure on Israel to withdraw its forces.

The Israelis have indicated they will conclude most of their military operations in about a week, although they have not publicly fixed a firm timetable. They reportedly moved some forces out of the besieged town of Jenin, site of a fierce battle in a refugee camp where 23 Israeli soldiers and scores of Palestinians died.

In many ways, the region looks much as it did before the start of Powell's 10-day trip.

Israel retains a tight grip in Palestinian towns and cities in the West Bank, Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity continues to be occupied by Palestinian gunmen, and Arafat remains shadowed by Israeli tanks at his ruined compound in Ramallah.

"I have to ask the whole international world, I have to ask his excellency President Bush, I have to ask the United Nations, is this acceptable that I can't go outside the door?" Arafat told reporters who accompanied Powell to the compound.

"Is this acceptable, for how long, you think, do you think this will not reflect on the whole stability and peace in the Middle East?" he said.

Arafat called the siege in Bethlehem "shameful" and added, "Who can accept it internationally? Who can accept this against these very holy sacred places?"

Israeli Prime Minister Sharon has said the operation would end in a week. Israeli troops are expected to remain in Ramallah and Bethlehem until the crises in those cities are resolved.

Israel launched its military campaign late last month in response to a string of Palestinian suicide bomb attacks. The Israelis say they're rooting out terrorism and a terrorist infrastructure.

Powell said Sharon "had a pretty precise timeline in mind," adding, "I take the prime minister at his word that he is going to conclude it in the next few days or week or so from when he said it to me."

Powell, speaking at a news conference in Jerusalem before his departure yesterday, also noted that Israel's military reservists are "returning home."

He said that Assistant Secretary of State William Burns will remain in the region and that he might be assisted by Central Intelligence Agency Director George J. Tenet and retired Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni.

While continuing to push for a comprehensive settlement that would leave two states - Israel and Palestine - living side by side in peace, Powell also discussed some of the difficult and emotive issues that lie ahead.

He called on Israel "to look beyond the destructive impact of [Jewish] settlements and [West Bank] occupation."

"Israelis should look ahead to the promise held out by the region and the world of a comprehensive, lasting peace," he said.

For the Palestinians, Powell said, "the question is whether violence and terrorism can be renounced forever and whether your sights can be set squarely on peace through negotiations."

Powell also had tough words for Arafat and his Palestinian Authority, saying they could no longer "equivocate" on the issue of terrorism.

"They must decide, as the rest of the world has decided, that terrorism must end," Powell said. "Chairman Arafat must take that message to his people. He must follow through with instructions to his security forces. They must act to arrest and prosecute terrorists, disrupt terrorist financing, dismantle terrorist infrastructure and stop incitement."

Powell called his two conversations with Arafat during the trip direct and straightforward.

"I gave him a very clear message about what our expectations were for him as the leader of the Palestinian people in the current position that he is in, even if he is constrained by his ability to move and communicate," Powell said.

The Israelis blame Arafat and the Palestinian leadership for setting off the present crisis with suicide bomb attacks.

"For the past 18 months, the Palestinian stance has been the obstacle to negotiations and peace," said Yaron Sideman, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman. "I sincerely hope that Powell's visit to the region reiterated the need for the Palestinians to talk peace."

Sideman said "many" Israeli troops are pulling out of the West Bank and are following Sharon's timetable.

"We're doing so at no small risk," Sideman said. "We did not seek to venture in there. We didn't get any major kick out of it. We did it because we faced an unbearable situation of terror attacks, killing and maiming Israeli civilians."

Not all were entirely pessimistic. Ziad Abu Zayyad, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said, "At least there are some contacts and the effort will continue."

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