Bush Sending Powell to Middle East Next Week to Bolster Fragile Truce
US President George W. Bush said Wednesday he would send Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Middle East next week in a bid to shore up an increasingly fragile US-brokered truce between Israel and the Palestinians, said reports.
Bush said that despite the shaky nature of the ceasefire, brokered last week by CIA chief George Tenet, he believed enough progress had been made to justify sending Powell to the region to reinforce that progress.
"We're making enough progress for me to feel comfortable about asking the secretary of state to go," Bush told reporters after speaking via telephone with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, according to Haaretz newspaper.
"The parties must continue to work on an all-out effort to bring peace," Bush said. "People can find excuses or rationales not to continue to work to break the cycle of violence. I urged them to not think that way."
Both Arafat and Sharon reaffirmed their commitment to the ceasefire as a step toward fulfilling the recommendations of the Mitchell Commission, an international panel headed by former US senator George Mitchell.
The commission's report, released last month, called for a truce, followed by a cooling off period and confidence-building measures before a resumption in peace talks.
Powell will arrive toward the end of next week when Sharon returns from Washington, where he is due to meet Bush at the White House on Tuesday.
Special envoy William Burns will arrive Thursday to prepare the ground for Powell's visit, the paper said.
The decision to send Powell is a major policy reversal - two weeks ago Powell said he did not intend to visit the region unless there was a real chance for progress.
However, violence in the tumultuous region continued Wednesday despite the ceasefire, as a Palestinian and an Jewish settler were shot dead and each side accused the other of failing to live up to the truce.
Sharon's security cabinet announced grudgingly after a three-hour meeting that Israel would hold to the agreement, while Arafat angrily denounced the Israelis as liars and said they had not stopped their "aggression."
Sharon is under mounting pressure from Israeli hard-liners to ditch the accord and resume military strikes, and he told Bush that Israel had the right to defend itself against Palestinian violence, according to a spokesman quoted by the paper.
"Israel will nevertheless continue to respect the ceasefire, even though four Israelis have been killed and a dozen others wounded since it was declared," Raanan Gissin quoted Sharon as telling Bush.
Earlier Wednesday evening, Israeli and Palestinian security officials ended a meeting in Jerusalem aimed at hammering out a timetable for an Israeli military pullback in the Palestinian territories, without results, Israeli public radio reported.
But the two sides only agreed to come together in one week to "assess the situation," the report said, cited by Israeli press reports.
Jibril Rjoub, West Bank preventive security chief, said intensive meetings would continue over the next two days to try to work out a timetable for implementing the Tenet accord.
Israel Radio reported that additional meetings would be held next week to re-assess the situation.
Shin Bet Director Avi Dichter, head of the Israeli army planning division, and generals from the central and southern command represented Israel at the meeting. In addition to Rjoub, the Palestinians were represented by Amin Al Hindi, head of PA intelligence; Abedel-Razek Al Majaida, commander of national security; and General Hajj Ismail, commander of national security in the West Bank.
Despite that pessimistic report, a Palestinian official who asked not to be identified told AFP the talks "had been constructive" and that the two sides had planned several meetings over the next two days to "set out a calendar for lifting the blockade." – Albawaba.com
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)
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