U.S. calls Mideast peace talks

Summit this summer could lay groundwork for truce, Palestinian state

`A time for prompt action'

European Union, Russia, United Nations will act as meeting's co-sponsors

May 03, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Colin L. Powell announced plans yesterday for an international conference early this summer that would seek to push Israelis and Palestinians toward peace and to strengthen Israeli security.

"This is a time for prompt action to take advantage of this new window of opportunity that has been presented to us," said Powell, seizing on a fragile lull in the Middle East conflict after Israel lifted its siege of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's compound in the West Bank. "And we intend to do just that."

The conference is expected to try to lay the groundwork for a Palestinian state and to build on proposals to normalize relations between Arab nations and Israel, while enhancing Israel's security. It would be sponsored by the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

But with Israeli forces and Palestinians still fighting, prospects for success are uncertain. Powell gave no indication that the sides, which have been locked in a cycle of terrorism and retribution for a year and a half, would have to declare a cease-fire before the conference.

Powell did not say where or when the conference would be held, which countries would take part or even what the specific goals are. It has not been decided, he said, whether the conference would pursue an Israeli-Palestinian agreement or simply seek to begin negotiations toward one.

U.S. officials said the conference would draw foreign ministers, not heads of state.

President Bush, speaking earlier yesterday, reaffirmed his vision of a state called Palestine that would emerge from negotiations and exist peacefully alongside Israel. But the president set firm guidelines of what such a state would have to look like if it expects to win support from the United States.

"Such a state cannot be based on a foundation of terror or corruption," Bush said after meeting with European Union leaders. "A Palestinian state must be based on the principles that are critical to freedom and prosperity: democracy and open markets, the rule of law, transparent and accountable administration, and respect for individual liberties and civil society."

Bush's guidelines suggest that he believes a major change is needed in the character of the Palestinian leadership. The Palestinian Authority, as led by Arafat, has been notorious for corruption. Evidence has mounted that some of its personnel and officials have engaged in terrorism and arms smuggling.

Bush administration officials are expected to make some decisions about the conference before the arrival in Washington next week of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and King Abdullah II of Jordan, two key figures involved. Sharon is likely to meet with Bush on Tuesday, King Abdullah on Wednesday.

The idea of an international peace conference was broached several weeks ago by Sharon. At the time, it was dismissed by Palestinian spokesmen, who said it would be a waste of time. Sharon demanded initially that it be held without Arafat, but later relented.

Leaders of Arab states also responded skeptically to the idea at first, though they did not reject it outright. They said it would have to be carefully prepared and set forth a clear path to an agreement that would end Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Edward Abington, a retired U.S. diplomat who lobbies in Washington for the Palestinian Authority, said of the Palestinians: "They're going to show up regardless."

Abington said the Palestinians have faith in the international leaders who would sponsor the conference.

"They think they won't get everything they want, but they will get enough, so there is no doubt about going."

Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, said: "Israel favors a conference that will bring to the table all those who have an interest in peace and stability in the Middle East."

Asked if that would include Arafat, Regev asked rhetorically, "Is he interested in peace and stability in the Middle East?

"If such a conference would come out strongly against terror and say that all political disputes should be resolved around the negotiating table, that would be positive," Regev said.

Israel, he said, hopes participants "come out against hatred and incitement, encourage people-to-people relations between Israelis and their Arab neighbors," and work for broad cooperation between Israelis and Arabs.

A person who has met recently with U.S. planners said the conference would likely be used as a launching pad for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and not seek to broker an agreement.

If so, this would follow the format of the Madrid peace conference of 1991. The first Bush administration used that conference as the starting point for direct negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

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