Powell Praises Israeli Pull-Out

Secretary of State Colin Powell is praising Israel for sticking to its schedule for withdrawing from the West Bank, but says the Middle East crisis won't end until soldiers are back in their garrisons and normal life resumes in Palestinian cities.

"I'm not completely satisfied. I would like to see the withdrawal continue until there is no question about it," Powell said Sunday on CBS' Face the Nation.

He also urged Israel to ease its confinement of Yasser Arafat so the Palestinian leader can do more to stop violence.

Powell made a round of appearances on television talk shows three days after returning from a Middle East peace trip that failed to secure the cease-fire sought by President Bush. He said he expects to return to the Middle East in the "not-too-distant future" but has no immediate plans.

Israel has withdrawn its forces from most West Bank cities following an offensive that began March 29 aimed at militant groups responsible for a wave of suicide bombings. The offensive has been denounced internationally, and Palestinians claim many civilians have been killed.

At the annual meeting in Washington of the largest pro-Israel lobbying group, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres defended the offensive, saying his nation's troops had to pursue Palestinian terrorists because Arafat wouldn't.

Military action "was not our choice, but our lack of choice," Peres told about 3,000 members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Sunday night. "We did it and it's over." 

Peres denied Palestinian claims of massacres. At Jenin, site of some of the worst fighting, he said only three of the 50 Palestinians killed were civilians and that 23 Israeli soldiers died.

"The soldiers got orders to respect civilian life and every civilian person and they did so," Peres said.

Powell said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is following a timeline for a withdrawal he gave last week.

Two standoffs continue, however. In Ramallah, Arafat's compound remains under siege as Israel demands the surrender of suspects in the October killing of Rehavam Zeevi, Israel's tourism minister. The suspects are believed to be in the compound. Israeli troops also have surrounded the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where armed Palestinians are holed up. 

Powell said the United States and other nations are trying to help resolve the standoffs, although he declined to provide details.

He suggested the restrictions on Arafat's movements have prevented him from providing guidance to subordinates.

"I think sooner or later, he has to be given access to the means of control, to the means of communicating with others, and so I think we'll have to work through that problem," Powell said.

But the secretary said Arafat can also do more right now. He said he can "go after those organizations that are not only killing innocent Israeli citizens, but who are killing the dream of a Palestinian state through such actions."

President Bush takes a direct role in the Middle East this week, meeting Thursday at his Texas ranch with Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. He is the author of a plan to offer recognition of Israel in exchange for return of Arab lands seized in the 1967 war.

Abdullah's foreign policy adviser, Adel Al-Jubeir, said the Saudi leader will tell Bush that "America must be engaged, America must restrain Sharon, America must put the peace process back in its proper track."

Peres said the Saudi proposal is positive "if you don't look at the details, but you look at the general perception." But he noted it will be difficult to reach the goals of the plan because Israel can't negotiate directly with Saudi Arabia, which has no diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.

"When it comes to Saudi Arabia, we can see the light, but we can't find the tunnel," the foreign minister said.