JERUSALEM – Israeli leaders told Secretary of State Colin Powell on Monday that they will do their utmost to allow Palestinian elections to take place, including easing travel restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In a sign of improving ties after four years of Mideast fighting, Israeli officials also said they are willing to renew talks with the Palestinians on some issues, including security, and to coordinate the aftermath of Israel's planned withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank in 2005.
Israel had refused to negotiate with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (search).
Arafat's death Nov. 11 provided a "moment of opportunity that should not be lost," Powell said.
He told Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom (search) that the United States wants to seize the moment, and to make sure Palestinian presidential elections are held Jan. 9, as planned.
Later Monday, Powell met with Palestinian officials in the West Bank town of Jericho and visited a voter registration office there.
Palestinian officials asked Powell to ensure that Israel withdraws troops from West Bank population centers ahead of the elections. They said he did not pass along any specific Israeli commitments regarding the vote.
Shalom said it is in Israel's interest to see the Palestinian elections go forward.
"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 after a meeting with Powell.
"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.
However, he said that the Palestinians would have "freedom of movement" in the run-up to the elections. He said Israel would coordinate the arrangements with the Palestinians but would not compromise on security.
An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Shalom also told Powell that Israel is willing to resume talks with the Palestinians on some issues, including security.
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 Troops have since withdrawn from some areas, but continue to enforce travel restrictions on Palestinians. Palestinians say they need freedom of movement for the vote.
Powell said Monday the United States will do what it can to ensure peaceful elections.
"I think that what I have heard today suggests that the Palestinian Authority is committed to reform," Powell said after his meeting with Palestinian leaders. "This is the time to assist them in holding a good, solid election."
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat (search) said Powell told Palestinian leaders that "the United States will stand shoulder to shoulder with us to have free elections," Erekat said.
Powell said the Israelis expressed a willingness to allow Palestinian residents of east Jerusalem to take part in the vote — a contentious issue because Israel fears doing so could undermine its claims to all of the city.
Powell said both sides agreed that the model used in the last Palestinian elections in 1996 — allowing east Jerusalem residents to vote with absentee ballots — could be used again.
Also on Monday, the European Union said it will send a mission to observe the Palestinian elections.
Powell reiterated the Palestinians must rein in militants. "We have to ensure that terrorism and violence will not permitted once again to stop this process," he said.
The interim Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas (search), 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 said Israel and the Palestinians must renew their commitments in the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which was launched in June 2003 but never got off the ground.
"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.
The United States supports Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan but has said it must be part of the road map. Powell reassured Palestinian officials that the United States does not consider the Gaza withdrawal as a replacement for the road map.
The peace plan initially envisioned the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2005, but President Bush said he'd be pushing for Palestinian statehood in the next four years.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search) has urged the United States to stick to the original timetable. This demand was raised in Monday's meeting.
Powell said that while a Palestinian state should be established as soon as possible, it is up to Israel and the Palestinians to negotiate a peace deal.
In Jericho, Powell told a group of Palestinian voters at a registration center that Palestinian statehood "won't be determined by picking a date, but by progress and action on the ground."
Powell said he was encouraged by the orderly transition after Arafat's death. Within hours, the Palestinians installed an interim Palestinian Authority president, and scheduled elections within 60 days, as required by law.
The Palestinians also asked the United States for help in rebuilding their security agencies, which were left in tatters by four years of fighting with Israel. They also sought Washington's support in a Dec. 9 pledging conference of international donors.