WASHINGTON – State Department held out hope Wednesday that a West Bank truce between Israel and the Palestinians could be a springboard to a wider accord.
Welcoming the agreement that could reverse Israel's incursion into Beit Jalla, a West Bank town from which Palestinians were accused of launching attacks, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, "We support any steps to end the violence."
Secretary of State Colin Powell telephoned both Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and foreign minister, Shimon Peres, about the need for security cooperation with the Palestinians to end the violence that has plagued the region, Boucher said.
They also discussed the possibility that the new truce might point to other positive steps, a senior U.S. official said.
Israeli diplomats cautioned that the situation is fluid, however, and the outcome depends on whether the Palestinians abide by terms of the accord.
Boucher suggesting the truce reached between Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat may have broader implications. He said the fragile deal could "get us on the path" to implementing the Mitchell commission report.
That's the nearly shelved blueprint for steering Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table after six weeks of calm and confidence-building measures, including a suspension of construction of Jewish housing on the West Bank and in Gaza.
"Stopping the violence is the way of getting there," Boucher said.
At the same time, the State Department heightened its criticism of the measures used by Israel in retaliation for terrorist attacks.
"I think we've seen incursions before," Boucher said of Israel's deployment of forces into Beit Jallah, a Palestinian town south of Jerusalem from which Palestinians, according to Israel, have fired into Gilo, a suburb of the capital.
However, the spokesman said, "There is a fundamental issue here, and that's trying to reverse agreements and understandings that have been made in the past."
The statement appeared a muted warning to Israel to reverse the incursion, the longest-lasting of several into territory Israel turned over to the Palestinian Authority under the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Powell, meanwhile, telephoned Arafat and assured him that he was pressing Israel to pull its forces out of the town.
According to Boucher, Powell told Arafat: "We have been pressing for Israeli withdrawal from there."
After Powell condemned Israel's move into sections of Gaza in April, Israeli troops pulled back.
Boucher did not say how Arafat received Powell's reassurance or whether the Palestinian leader complained that Israel was using U.S. military equipment against the Palestinians.
Powell also urged Arafat "to do everything he can to stop the violence and tone down the rhetoric as we move forward," Boucher said.
Reaching out to the Europeans for peacemaking support, Powell conferred by telephone Tuesday with Louis Michel, foreign minister of Belgium, to discuss implementing the Mitchell commission report, Boucher said.
Belgium currently holds the presidency of the European Union, which is rotated among the 18 member countries.