WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) held an unannounced meeting Monday with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search)'s chief of staff, setting the stage for a potential round of talks next week with both Israeli and Palestinian officials.
The meeting was held jointly with Condoleezza Rice (search), President Bush's national security adviser, shortly before Powell left for a conference of Asian countries in Cambodia.
Sharon sent his aide, Dov Weisglass, to Washington during the weekend to coordinate with the Bush administration on a faltering plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the so-called road map for peace.
Powell plans to go on to the Middle East toward the end of the week for a meeting in Jordan with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and senior European Union officials.
They are worried about the sad state of their blueprint for peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians, now battered by fighting between Israel and Hamas, a Palestinian militant group that has killed scores of Israelis with suicide bombings.
Egyptian mediators were unable Monday to persuade Hamas to halt its attacks, and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas decided to make his own effort.
Powell told The Associated Press Thursday that he was keeping his travel schedule flexible for a possible trip to Israel after the Quartet had met in Jordan.
If they were to meet, the sessions would be in Israel with Sharon and on the West Bank with Abbas.
After scolding Israel briefly for targeting a Hamas leader last Monday with rockets, Bush has backed Sharon by calling for harsh treatment of Hamas, which specializes in suicide bombings, and any other terror group that does not want a peaceful Israel and Palestine existing side-by-side.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Monday: "There are threats to the Israelis, threats to the Palestinians, that come principally from Hamas and from the other groups of a rejectionist nature, a rejectionist front, who have no interest in peace."
Fleischer said they did not support creation of a Palestinian state and represent a threat to the Palestinian people.
Bush and his U.N., Russian and European Union partners have set their sights on a Palestinian state by 2005, established on land Israel conquered in the 1967 Six-Day War.
The president has not called for Israeli restraint or publicly criticized targeting terror leaders for a week. In the meantime, Sharon has promised repeatedly to keep up Israeli attacks on Hamas.
The Bush administration wants to build up the Palestinian Authority's security force in the hope it would dismantle Hamas and other militant groups.
American envoy John Wolf arrived in Jerusalem during the weekend and began talks with Israeli and Palestinian security forces. His assignment is to try to lower the violence level so the U.S.-backed road map can be put back in use.
More than 50 people were killed in last week's spate of bloodletting, mostly Palestinian and Israeli noncombatants. Hamas leaders and Sharon have vowed a fight to the finish.
At the same time, though, Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, a senior official in the Israeli Defense Ministry, met Saturday night with Palestinian security minister Mohammed Dahlan on an Israeli initiative to withdraw Israeli forces from northern Gaza and see if the Palestinian Authority could control Hamas.
Bush said over the weekend that "the Free World -- those who love freedom and peace -- must deal harshly with Hamas and the killers."
And the State Department made a point Monday of saying it was not sponsoring the mediation between Egyptian officials and Hamas, which eventually apparently failed.
"We're not the puppet masters," spokesman Richard Boucher said. "We don't control everybody in the world. We don't approve of every meeting that everybody in the world has."
In fact, the U.S. official said the administration had not approved Egyptian and Palestinian talks with Hamas. "I'm not encouraging their meetings. I'm not sending them out on meetings," Boucher said.
Even if Hamas should agree to a cease-fire, it must be dismantled, he said.