WASHINGTON – Israeli officials confirm that meetings with Palestinian security officials have continued despite the blackballing of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat for the time being over a recent spate of suicide bombings by Palestinian militants.
The talks are not the formal sit-downs that used to take place with Americans present, but they are an effort to work on a cease-fire at ground level despite Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement with Arafat.
The dispute over Palestinian attacks and reciprocal bombings by Israeli forces on Gaza and the West Bank forced the recall last week of Mideast peace envoy Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni for "consultations" on the U.S. effort there.
Secretary of State Powell has not yet met with Zinni in person since Zinni's recall, but a meeting is expected later this week.
In the meantime, Powell has been talking to both Sharon and Arafat about "how to move forward, how to continue efforts to end the violence," State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said Tuesday.
The secretary spoke to both men by telephone Tuesday, telling Arafat that while he seems to be taking some steps toward reducing the violence, "those actions need to be completed. They need to be made effective. There need to be more actions to make an effective end to the violence."
As far as Israel's actions, Boucher said, "We do think that Israel needs to be prepared to do its part to create an environment in which Palestinians can sustain and expand their efforts. It's important that Israelis work to alleviate the pressures on the Palestinian people, especially restrictions that impose real hardships and make day-to-day living difficult."
At the same time, however, Boucher said the United States continues "to put the primary emphasis today on the efforts by Chairman Arafat to effectively, decisively and in a sustained manner deal with the cause of the violence."
He said the secretary is also urging both sides to resume the security dialogue interrupted when Sharon declared Arafat "irrelevant."
"The secretary also said, as we have before, that direct Israeli- Palestinian contacts, particularly on security issues, are important to end the violence, and in his conversations with both sides encouraged them to continue those kind of contacts," Boucher said.