MADRID, Spain – Secretary of State Colin Powell is appealing to Europeans and Russia to support an accelerated U.S. peacemaking plan in the Middle East and urging them to speak out against violence in the region.
"We are going to have to act more quickly," Powell said Tuesday after a round of talks with Arab leaders and an announcement that he would meet next weekend with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader kept isolated by Israel in his West Bank capital, Ramallah.
Powell, diverting from a pressurized tour of the embattled area, meeting in Madrid on Wednesday with European Union officials, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and King Juan Carlos of Spain. He was having dinner with Russia's foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, to discuss the Middle East as well as U.S.-Russian affairs including a planned arms-control summit in Moscow.
Powell is flying to Jordan on Thursday, then to Israel to begin open-ended efforts to gain a cease-fire between the Israelis and Palestinians and to launch more substantive peacemaking.
Powell said he expected Israel to withdraw its troops from the West Bank, and all nations are obliged to do what they can to stop the fighting. He said he urged Syria and, through intermediaries, Iran to clamp down on militant groups.
Powell is pressing for accelerated negotiations to establish a Palestinian state and said the United States would seek a swift end to violence between Israel and the Palestinians.
Setting no deadline to complete his mission, Powell said he would meet Arafat as well as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in an effort to broker a truce. "I haven't set any departure date," the secretary said. "I am prepared to stay for some while."
Powell said the United States was willing to contribute a small detachment of State Department or other civilian U.S. government employees to monitor any cease-fire agreement. He said the Americans would not "prevent people from shooting each other."
For the Bush administration, Powell's strategy marks a shift in tactics. For more than a year, as a Palestinian intefadeh, or uprising, grew from Palestinian stone-throwing and rioting, to firing on both sides, to suicide bombs and tanks and helicopter gunships, the administration had focused on a cease-fire as a condition to peacemaking.
Powell said all the Arab leaders with whom he met underscored the urgency of getting started on an accord, and doing it through Arafat as representative of the Palestinians.
Powell said he talked to Sharon on Tuesday and was told Israel would expedite its withdrawal of troops from the West Bank, where they're pursuing Palestinian militants. "The sooner the better," Powell said.
"Time is of the essence" for ending Middle East violence, he said after meeting with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Powell is seeking greater Arab participation in the peace process as well as an immediate end to Israel's military offensive.
Tuesday's announcement was the first time Powell had said expressly that he would meet Arafat during his trip to Israel. Although Arafat remains in Israeli-imposed isolation, Israel said it wouldn't try to stop a Powell-Arafat meeting.
Powell said Sharon, in their conversation Tuesday, reiterated "his commitment to bring this to an end as quick as he can." Powell praised Israel for beginning to withdraw its troops from Palestinian areas but noted that fierce fighting persisted.
After 13 Israeli soldiers were killed in an ambush during heavy fighting in the West Bank refugee camp of Jenin, Sharon said in a nationally broadcast address that the Israeli offensive would continue.
That was before a suicide bomber blew up a commuter bus during the morning rush hour Wednesday near the northern city of Haifa. Authorities said at least eight people were killed and 20 wounded.
In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Tuesday that President Bush expects Israel "to withdraw and to do so now. ... The president believes all parties still have responsibilities. He's looking for results."
Working to fill in the details of a U.S. vision for a permanent peace, Powell said political objectives must be pursued alongside talks to end the current violence. He told the Arabs they must acknowledge Israel's rights.
As for the American observers to monitor any cease-fire, Powell said "that would help with the confidence building, the restoring of trust between the two sides, get us back to where we were a few years ago."
Both sides would have to agree to such a team. U.S. forces already serve on the Sinai Peninsula in an international team monitoring enforcement of the 1969 Egyptian-Israeli peace accord.