WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday that Israel should loosen its confinement of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to give him a better chance of exercising his authority in support of steps toward easing hostilities with Israel.
Powell suggested that Arafat's confinement to his Ramallah compound has inhibited his ability to deliver guidance and instructions to his subordinates.
"I think the more access he is given, the opportunity he is given to show whether or not he can control forces or bring this security situation under control," Powell said on NBC's Meet the Press.
Israel has confined Arafat to his Ramallah headquarters since December. He has had access to only a few rooms of his offices since Israeli troops overran the compound three weeks ago.
"If he moves onto that new path and makes the very best effort he can to stay on the path and convince the Palestinian people that is the right path to lead to a Palestinian state, then there is much the United States can do for him and the peace process," Powell said.
Israel has said it will maintain its siege at Arafat's compound until he turns over suspects in the October killing of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi. The suspects are believed to be in the compound.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Arafat can still stop violence despite his confinement. He has authority "more than ever before, because his voice today is more powerful," Peres said on NBC.
Powell also welcomed the movement of Israeli forces out of the West Bank town of Nablus, Jenin and sections of Ramallah.
"I'm pleased that this withdrawal seems to be well under way," he said. The moves represented a significant scaling back of Israel's three-week old West Bank offensive. Israeli troops remained in the holy town of Bethlehem.
Powell, who returned Thursday from 10 days in the Middle East, said he expects to return to the region soon.
He said the United States would immediately send additional send humanitarian aid to the West Bank where the homes of hundreds of Palestinians were destroyed by Israeli forces in search of suspected militants. That assistance, he said, would include 800 family-sized tents, as well as water purification equipment and medical supplies.
"The United States is committed to finding a way forward that will allow these two peoples to live together, side by side in peace," he said. "We want to see this and we're going to make it come about."
The White House said Saturday said it would stay the course President Bush has charted as his Middle East policy and is discouraging attempts by lawmakers to step into the conflict with legislation.
Peace in the Middle East requires "hard choices and real leadership" by Israelis, Palestinians and their Arab neighbors, Bush said. The administration was cool to former President Clinton's offer to play a role in the peacemaking effort.
After defending Israel last week, and later expressing sympathy for the plight of Palestinians, Bush used his weekly radio address to make demands on all players in the Mideast.
"The time is now for all of us to make the choice for peace," he said.