JERUSALEM – Israeli leaders sought to assure visiting Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) on Monday that they would do their utmost to allow Palestinians to hold a presidential election, including easing travel restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (search).
Powell told Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom that the United States wants to take advantage of opportunities in the Middle East created by the death of Yasser Arafat, and that it supports Palestinian elections set for Jan. 9.
Powell was to hold talks with Palestinian leaders later Monday in the West Bank town of Jericho and visit a voter registration office there.
The Palestinians want the United States to pressure Israel to withdraw troops from West Bank population centers ahead of the election, in which voters will choose a new president of the Palestinian Authority to succeed Arafat, who died Nov. 11.
Shalom said after his meeting with Powell that it is in Israel's interest that the Palestinian elections go foward.
"The first priority is the Palestinian election which will hopefully bring about a Palestinian leadership with whom we can sit down and address all the issues on our agenda," he said.
"I have reassured the secretary today that Israel will do everything in its power to ensure their smooth running," he said.
Shalom did not say whether Israel would pull back troops but said that Israel would remove obstacles and that the Palestinians would have "freedom of movement" ahead of the elections.
Israel reoccupied West Bank towns during a 2002 military offensive aimed at halting Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel. Troops have since withdrawn from some areas, but continue to enforce travel restrictions. Palestinians say they need freedom of movement for the vote.
Powell said Monday that the United States will do what it can to ensure peaceful elections. Without referring to Arafat by name, Powell said: "This is a moment of opportunity. We look forward to the Palestinian elections that will be held on Jan. 9."
Powell reiterated that the Palestinians must rein in militants. "Violence must be ended," he said.
The interim Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is trying to persuade militant groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to halt violence during the election campaign. But it is not clear whether they will agree to a truce.
Powell, meanwhile, said Israel and the Palestinians must nenew their commitments in the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which never progressed beyond its launch in June 2003.
"All sides must be prepared to meet their obligations under the road map," he said. The plan requires Israel to freeze settlements in the first phase, and asks the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups.
Sharon praised Powell as a "friend of Israel" and wished him well. Powell resigned earlier this month, and is to be replaced by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
The United States supports Sharon's plan of "unilateral disengagement" from the Palestinians, including a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements in 2005.
However, U.S. officials have said Sharon's plan must be part of the road map, not an alternative.
The road map envisioned the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2005, but President Bush said recently that he would push for Palestinian statehood in the next four years.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia has urged the United States to stick to the original timetable, and this demand was to be raised in Monday's meeting between Powell and Palestinian leaders.
The Palestinians also seek U.S. help in rebuilding their security agencies, which were left in tatters by four years of fighting with Israel. They also ask for Washington's support in an Dec. 9 conference of international donors.