JERUSALEM – Secretary of State Colin Powell (search), encouraged by a change in Palestinian leadership, issued a strong message Saturday to Israel and the Palestinians regarding the stalled peace process: "Let's get on with it."
Touting the Bush administration's "road map" to peace in the region, Powell appeared optimistic both sides could embrace the plan. He said Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (search) "is beginning to make the right statements with respect to terror and violence" and that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, too, had shown signs of cooperation.
"We need to get started," Powell said of efforts to bring a lasting peace to the region. "People can comment on the road map as we move forward. Let's not allow comments to stop us. Let's get on with it."
Powell planned to hold talks with Ariel Sharon (search) in Jerusalem Sunday, before crossing into the West Bank for his first meeting with Abbas, who was sworn in on April 30.
Powell's peace mission began Saturday with an evening meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.
At a news conference with Shalom, Powell touched on the sensitive topic of the Palestinian right to return – the demand that people who fled Israel in 1948, when it was founded, be allowed to go back to the country with their descendents. Powell said Israel should not "gloss over" the issue.
"The two sides have to deal with it in due course," Powell said.
Shalom gave no indication that Israel would open its doors to tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees. He said that if Palestinian leaders take measures against terrorist groups, "It'll be easier for us to make more gestures toward the Palestinians."
But he also said if those leaders "will be ready to move for us toward peace, we will be able to move together in order to achieve peace."
The leaders would have to do more than just work out a cease-fire with militant groups who have launched terror attacks against Israel, Shalom said. Insisting on dismantling groups such as Hamas, Shalom said he did not think a cease-fire alone "will bring us to a better atmosphere and better future."
Powell told reporters that one positive step is Sharon's apparent decision to drop Israel's insistence that all violence against its citizens must end as a condition for the peace process to move ahead.
"I haven't heard Israelis talk of total calm," Powell said. "They are saying they are looking for a lot of effort and intent" by the new Palestinian leaders to stop terror attacks.
To this end, Powell said the CIA is in touch with Palestinian officials, and other U.S. agencies may provide help. On Sunday, Powell will head to the West Bank (search) city of Ramallah where he will meet with Abbas. Sharon is not expected to join him.
Powell said he intends to assess the anti-terror tactics being used by Palestinian Interior Minister Mohammed Dahlan, who is in charge of security chief in Palestinian areas.
The secretary said he would press Israel to ease economic restrictions on Palestinians and deal with settlement activity.
The blueprint, or "road map," for peace that the Bush administration has prepared with the United Nations, European Union and Russia prescribes a freeze of construction of homes for Jews on the West Bank and Gaza and a cut in Israeli outposts in those areas.
"The road map is controversial," Powell said. "There are elements one party or the other might not like."
The Palestinian Authority and U.S. officials in Jerusalem decided Saturday to move Powell's talks with Abbas and Dahlan from Ramallah, site of the Palestinian headquarters, to Jericho.
The move was to avoid expected demonstrations against Powell's visit by members of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.
The Bush administration has tried to marginalize Arafat, and the longtime Palestinian leader will not participate in the meeting.
Asked if he had requested that Arafat stay away, Powell snapped: "Yes. I won't meet with Mr. Arafat."
U.S. officials expect Abbas to work vigorously to curb violence and move the Palestinians toward greater democracy as part of the blueprint's projection of a Palestinian state by 2005.
President Bush is counting on Israeli-Palestinian peace to lead to major changes in the political and economic systems of other Arab nations.
"Ultimately, economic success and human dignity depend on the rule of law and honest administration of justice," Bush said in a speech Friday.
Powell also plans meetings this week with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher, Jordan's King Abdullah II and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. The secretary then goes to Moscow for talks Wednesday with President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.