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Powell Tries to Smooth Over Arab Skepticism of Israel's Intentions

Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) tried Monday to overcome Arab skepticism about Israel's intentions with assurances that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) had begun implementing a blueprint for peace with the Palestinians.

Referring to Sharon's decision to release dozens of prisoners, remove some roadblocks to travel by Palestinians to their jobs in Israel and to transfer funds to the Palestinians, Powell suggested actions were what mattered in Israel's approach to the blueprint.

"It makes no difference whether you have a word 'accept' or not have a word 'accept,"' he said in Cairo, Egypt, at a joint news conference with Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Maher.

During Sunday visits with the principals to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Sharon presented Powell a list of comments on the so-called road map to Israeli-Palestinian peace but did not specifically accept it; Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (search) accepted it as written despite what he considered shortcomings.

"I think what we are seeing is a willingness on the part of the Israeli side to begin moving," Powell said in an interview with Nile Television. He also said Israel would maintain some roadblocks "as long as there is a concern with respect to security."

Maher, the Egyptian minister, appeared unconvinced by Powell's views.

"It is important for both sides to indicate their intention to implement what is in the road map," Maher said. "The word `accept' is not a dirty word. I think it will be a useful word."

And while Egypt offered to help the United States make peace between Israel and the Palestinians and to train Palestinian police, Egypt would not go along with Washington's attempt to sidestep Yasser Arafat, longtime symbol of the Palestinian movement.

Arafat is the leader of the Palestinian people, Maher said, and "we continue to recognize him as the leader of the Palestinian people."

President Bush has ruled out dealing with Arafat, branding him as a failed leader entwined with terror attacks against Israel. Arafat was not at the table when Powell met on Sunday on the West Bank with Abbas to win his acceptance of the blueprint for peacemaking.

Egypt, one of America's closest friends in the Middle East, "will continue to deal with him," Maher said in a ringing endorsement of the Jerusalem-born Arafat, who in his mid-70s remains head of the Palestinian Authority.

Powell did not respond. He said already on his trip that governments have the right to make their own decisions about Arafat, but he hoped the Arabs and Europeans would come over to the U.S. viewpoint.

As Powell flew later to Jordan for talks with King Abdullah II, a senior State Department official said the Egyptians understand U.S. efforts to overhaul the Palestinian Authority and played a helpful role in creating a new leadership with Abbas, known also as Abu Mazen, as prime minister.

In Amman, Abdullah endorsed the road map, especially its provision for "an independent Palestinian state on Palestinian lands" by 2005.

A Royal Palace statement said he and Powell discussed during a two-hour meeting how to resuscitate Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and what to do about the reconstruction of Iraq after the U.S.-led war. Abdullah pressed for swift formation of "a national government in Iraq which could take the lead in that country," the statement said.

After their meeting, Powell took the wheel of King Abdullah's 1959 Mercedes-Benz SL300 sports car and, with the king in the passenger seat, drove away to Powell's hotel.

On Tuesday, Powell and King Abdullah will sign an agreement that transfers $700 million in U.S. assistance to Jordan. The aid is designed to help Jordan overcome revenue shortfalls resulting from its loss of subsidized oil deliveries from Iraq.

Powell then goes to Saudi Arabia for talks with leaders of the oil-rich kingdom. He is asking the Saudis for their help in harnessing militant groups and in promoting Palestinian reform.

At the news conference, Powell was upbeat about prospects for making headway toward peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

He listed as positive events the Palestinians' selection of Abbas and his cabinet, humanitarian action by Sharon involving the Palestinians and a meeting Friday between the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers. "I think these are all hopeful signs," Powell said, "hopeful signs that I hope will put us firmly on a road to peace."