JERUSALEM – Secretary of State Colin Powell on Monday expressed support for an international conference aimed at ending Middle East violence and restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
Separately, President Bush welcomed Israel's announced intention to withdraw troops from two Palestinian areas as "a positive development," even though it was far from the complete pullout Bush wanted.
Sidestepping a clash with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who wants to exclude Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from any peace conference, Powell said the meeting might be held at the foreign minister level. But European and Arab leaders said any such conference needs Arafat's presence to be effective.
"It's a way to get the parties together and talking," Powell said on the ninth day of a peace mission that has made little progress so far.
"I believe that within several weeks it will be such a meeting and we will be able really to go forward," Sharon said during an interview with Fox News, carried by Sky television.
Sharon sidestepped questions on whether he would back a conference with Arafat, saying only that it would be impossible to reach peace with the Palestinian leader.
Sharon Tells Bush Troops to Pull Out Within Week
Bush, who hasn't spoken with Arafat, called Sharon on Monday.
In a15-minute conversation, Sharon told Bush Israeli troops would pull out of Jenin and Nablus within a week, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
In an earlier interview, Sharon told Fox News that Israeli forces would remain indefinitely in Ramallah, where they surround Arafat's headquarters, and in Bethlehem until terrorists surrender.
Bush told Sharon that ending the siege at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was one of Powell's most urgent priorities, Fleischer said.
"The Church of Nativity problem has got to get resolved. That's one of the things that Secretary Powell is working very hard on right now," said Fleischer, who is traveling with Bush in Iowa.
At a fund-raising dinner in Iowa, Bush said he was proud of Powell's peacemaking efforts.
"We're willing to work for peace in regions of the world where some may say peace never has a chance," he said.
Bush appealed to Sharon for the humane treatment of Palestinian civilians in the areas overrun by Israeli troops in recent weeks. "The president urged the prime minister to consider the human dimensions and to improve human conditions throughout the West Bank," Fleischer said.
"We will maintain close contact with both sides in the coming days," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
Powell Presses On
Pressing on in his Mideast mission, Powell will meet for a third time with Sharon on Tuesday and is making arrangements to visit Arafat for a second time Wednesday in his battered Ramallah headquarters.
Palestinian officials said they are working on a joint statement with the United States that would include a stiff condemnation of suicide bomb attacks and a call for Israel to pull out of Palestinian-controlled areas.
The two sides began putting the document together during talks on Monday. A copy of the first draft, obtained by The Associated Press, shows that Palestinians want to include a call for international observers and further U.N. Security Council action.
Sharon suggested the international conference to Powell at their meeting in Tel Aviv on Sunday, though Sharon objected to including Arafat.
Powell said the United States would not necessarily be host for such a conference and that Arafat could send high-level Palestinian officials to represent him if talks were held at the foreign minister level.
"We've got to move quickly to a political track and there are many ways to do that and one way is with a regional or international conference," Powell said.
Sharon "gave some endorsement to that kind of idea" when they talked on Sunday "and Chairman Arafat did as well," Powell said.
But Hassan Abdel Rahman, the top Palestinian official in the United States, said Sharon should first stop his incursion into the West Bank. "Nothing can happen before that," he said in an interview from Washington.
Powell said he did not broach the idea of who would attend a conference except that representatives of both sides would be there. He said of Arafat, "It doesn't necessarily require his presence to get started."
So far, Powell has been stymied on his trip by both sides. Sharon refused to promise a timetable to withdraw Israeli troops from the West Bank, and Powell could not win an unconditional pledge from Arafat to bring violence down.
Looking to secure a cease-fire, Powell said his top priority now is "to see if we can get security discussions going."
Powell took soundings in Syria and Lebanon Monday on the proposed conference, and warned leaders of the two nations that guerrilla attacks on Israel could spill into a wider conflict.
The Lebanese government said Arafat must be invited to a conference.
After failing to draw concessions from Sharon and Arafat, Powell said in Damascus that he wanted Syrian President Bashar Assad's assessment on "a way forward to negotiations" to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict.
He also took up with the Syrian leader, as he had with Lebanese leaders in Beirut, "some of the danger with respect to firing over the Blue Line," the U.N.-drawn border between Lebanon and Israel.
Hezbollah guerrillas have fired rockets almost daily into Israel. Syria, which holds effective political and military control over Lebanon and is considered the militia group's patron, helping to funnel weapons from Iran to southern Lebanon.
In Beirut, Powell met with Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud and then President Emile Lahoud and Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, warning that violence along the border between Lebanon and Israel could spread.
Hammoud, in a strongly worded anti-Israeli statement, suggested there was a need for some "objectivity" about the attacks, which he described as resistance to Israeli occupation.
Thousands of Lebanese and Palestinians demonstrated as Powell arrived in Beirut. Protesters burned American and Israeli flags and shouted: "Powell Out!" and "Death to America! Death to Israel!"
The Lebanese officially support Hezbollah's shelling of Chebaa Farms, a small disputed enclave held by Israel along the border after a withdrawal from southern Lebanon. There was no shelling Sunday on the eve of Powell's visit.
Assad recognized that "it would not be in anyone's interest at this point to not try to restrain Hezbollah," Powell said.
European Leaders Express Cautious Support
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi endorsed a conference, saying such a gathering must include the United States, the European Union and the Arab League as well as Israel and the Palestinians.
French President Jacques Chirac expressed cautious optimism, saying a conference could be a "new road leading us in the right direction." But Prime Minister Lionel Jospin warned that the conference wouldn't make any sense if it excluded Arafat.
British Foreign Office Minister Ben Bradshaw, interviewed by Channel 4 TV news, said, "We're quite clear that Yasser Arafat is the democratically elected leader of the Palestinian people and any idea of a conference that is going to have a hope of solving this terrible crisis that excluded him is ludicrous."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.