POWELL steps up U.S. diplomacy in toward negotiations

Tuesday, May 22nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Secretary of State Colin Powell is picking up the pace of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East, aiming first for an immediate halt to fighting between Israel and the Palestinians, then for ``a cooling-off period and a process that leads to negotiations.''

Powell directed a senior American diplomat, William Burns, to take immediate charge of the effort by holding talks with Israel on settlements and the Palestinians on a need for ``an all-out effort to enforce a complete cessation of violence.''

Unless there is some progress on persuading Israel to stop its settlement construction, ``It is going to be very, very difficult to see how we get into a cooling-off period and a process that leads to negotiations,'' Powell said Monday.

While edging deeper into the Middle East morass, Powell offered no formula for peacemaking. First, he said, violence has to subside. He said, however, he would play ``whatever role is most useful in moving this process of confidence-building along until we get to the point of negotiations.''

In the meantime, Powell endorsed the report of a fact-finding commission headed by former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell that recommended a halt to further settlement activity and urged Palestinian leaders to do more to suppress and denounce terrorism.

Mitchell pointed to a recent poll that 62 percent of Israelis believe Prime Minister Ariel Sharon should soften his position. And the former senator said ``there hasn't been 100 percent effort'' by Palestinian leaders to end the violence.

The former senator, interviewed on CBS' ``The Early Show,'' would not say he is optimistic about a quick solution. ``Sooner or later, they're going to come to the table because the current conflict is unbearable to the people on both sides,'' he said.

Shibley Telhami, a longtime analyst, has concluded the Bush administration was trying to balance two competing tendencies.

On the one hand, the University of Maryland professor and Brookings Institution senior fellow said Monday, the administration wants to respond to international pressure and worries that the fighting will escalate if the United States stands by.

At the same time, though, ``The chances of progress are very small, and there is a fear they will fail.''

So, Telhami said in an interview, ``They are putting forward the Mitchell report, and not their own proposal.''

Similarly, Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the administration is under ``intense pressure to do something'' and responded in a restrained way.

``Regrettably, the parties have too much fight in them at the moment to believe that a diplomatic initiative at the current moment is likely to succeed,'' Satloff said in an interview.

Due to leave late Tuesday for Africa and Europe, Powell has left open the possibility of a meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser 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.''

Powell followed up his statements Monday with telephone calls to Sharon and Arafat, head of the Palestinian Authority and Palestine Liberation Organization.

``I hope both sides will be rather sobered by the events of the last several days,'' he said.

The appointment of Burns, 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 the U.S. presence 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 the Mitchell commission's report that urged Israel to stop building new homes for Jewish settlers or adding to existing ones injects the Bush administration 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.

According to the latest Israeli government figures, there are 163,000 Jews living in 122 settlements on the West Bank and 6,000 in 16 settlements in Gaza.

``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 could to halt the fighting.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said he hoped Powell would not use the Mitchell report as a guide to U.S. policy.

In a statement, Schumer said the report is not balanced.

``The report treats those who initiate violence and those who respond to it equally when the Israelis were only responding to Palestinian violence and terrorist attacks,'' Schumer said.

``Just as disturbing was the Mitchell report's recommendation that Israel should offers gestures of good will, such as a freeze in all settlement activity, even before Arafat stops the violence,'' the senator said.