Powell likely to ask Israel to leave PA cities prior to vote

By Aluf Benn, Nathan Guttman and Arnon Regular

Haaretz

Kislev 8, 5765

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is due to arrive tonight for a "farewell visit" to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

During meetings tomorrow with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Powell is expected to ask Israel not to disrupt the January 9 elections in the PA.

Sources say Powell will ask Israel to remove roadblocks and lift travel restrictions, withdraw its forces from Palestinian cities and limit its military activities. Israel is expected to accede to the American requests.

Sharon has already agreed to permit Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to participate in the elections.

Senior PA officials told the European Union's Middle East envoy, Javier Solana, during meetings in the territories last weekend that the success of the elections depends on achieving unity and avoiding violence, as well as Israel's willingness to open roadblocks and improve the quality of life in the territories, and to stop preventive actions and targeted killings. Palestinians said they believed they could achieve an internal cease-fire quickly and that Israel would respond by stopping its preventive operations. They said that, under present conditions, it would be difficult to ask the various factions to lay down their weapons.

Sharon told Likud activists last Thursday that he understands that disarming and disbanding the terror organizations would take time, and he was therefore presenting two other demands in order to "seriously scrutinize" the new Palestinian leadership: stopping incitement in the Palestinian media and changing educational materials that are hostile to Israel.

Sources said Sharon had presented his proposal ahead of Powell's visit and that of Powell's British and Russian counterparts this week, so talks would focus on what the Palestinians could do and not on demands on Israel.

"We reject the setting of preconditions to the renewal of negotiations," Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) said in response to Sharon's demands. Israel itself uses serious incitement as it continues in its acts of killing, assassination and incursions into Palestinian territory. It needs to stop this, only then are we prepared to fulfill all our obligations and create the right atmosphere for the renewal of the peace process."

Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) said in response to Sharon's demands: "The issue of incitement is a matter for both sides and has been discussed more than once in the past. We may have things like this but they are more common on the Israeli side."

In spite of the declarations by the senior PA officials, direct talks have begun between Sharon's office and the PA on ongoing matters.

Senior sources in the administration told MK Yossi Beilin (Yahad) last week that the United States is considering renewing its monitoring of implementation of the road map and to assist in disengagement and the PA elections. During Abbas' tenure as PA prime minister, the U.S. dispatched a group of monitors headed by U.S. envoy John Wolf, which operated from the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv.

Beilin said U.S. officials both in the administration and Congress stressed that President George Bush would like to move ahead soon with the peace process, and that he believes a singular opportunity has presented itself with Arafat's death and before disengagement. The U.S. administration reportedly believes Israel is meeting its obligations at this point and is waiting for progress in the disengagement process.

Beilin asked administration officials to combine withdrawal from the Gaza Strip with the implementation of the first part of the road map and to determine a timetable for moving ahead with both processes. According to Beilin, he was urged to extend Sharon a safety net to allow him to implement disengagement.

Qureia said yesterday that during Powell's upcoming visit, he will ask that the administration commit itself to the establishment of a Palestinian state by the end of 2005. Qureia said he objected to recent statements by Bush from which it could be understood that Bush intends to work toward the establishment of a Palestinian state by the end of his second term in office in 2008.

"We will ask the Americans for a clear commitment to the original timetable for the road map and about the link between disengagement and the road map, so the state can be established next year. Talk of establishing the state by 2008 will allow Israel to continue building settlements and swallowing more Palestinian land, which will damage the peace process," Qureia said.

Yesterday, Qureia met in Ramallah with the U.S. consul-general in East Jerusalem, David Pierce, in order to prepare for Powell's meeting tomorrow in Jericho with the Palestinian leadership. Palestinian sources say the meeting on Monday will lay the groundwork for a renewal of talks with the U.S. after Arafat's death and ahead of a visit by Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice in a few weeks.