Secretary of State Colin Powell sought to revive long-stalled peace efforts in separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. In Jerusalem, Mr. Powell won Israeli assurances to facilitate upcoming Palestinian elections and in the West Bank city of Jericho he said he sensed a strong commitment by Palestinian leaders to continue reforms and end violence.
It has been a year and a half since Colin Powell was last in the Middle East for direct talks with Israeli or Palestinian officials. Since then, the internationally-backed road map peace plan seemed hopelessly stalled. Washington and Israel blamed Yasser Arafat for failing to implement the peace plan and refused to deal with the Palestinian leader.
But since Mr. Arafat's death earlier this month, all sides are talking of new opportunities for peace that must not be missed. After meeting with Israeli officials in Jerusalem and Palestinian leaders in Jericho, Mr. Powell called for a revival of the road map.
"What has changed is a new set of circumstances in the aftermath of the chairman's passing with new leaders coming forward from the Palestinian side or a new arrangement of leaders on the Palestinian side, and with an election coming up I think it gives us the opportunity to re-energize the road map process," he said.
Mr. Powell did say that for peace efforts to have a chance, the Palestinians must stop violence and incitement. He praised efforts by the new interim Palestinian leadership to convince militant groups to halt attacks and instead join the political process.
Washington has also thrown its support behind plans for Palestinian elections January 9 to choose a successor to Mr. Arafat.
When Mr. Powell met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and then with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom earlier, he discussed the need to help facilitate the elections.
"The Palestinians will need access for candidates to move around, for people to get to polling stations," said Mr. Powell. "We did not get into the specifics of timing of actions that Israel might take, but they understand what the need is."
Foreign Minister Shalom promised support as long as it does not jeopardize Israeli security.
"Israel will do everything it can in order to ease conditions for the Palestinians to have their own elections," he said. "It includes, of course freedom of movement."
Mr. Shalom did not specify whether Israel would actually withdraw its troops from Palestinian areas, as called for by Palestinian leaders.
Mr. Powell's next stop in the region is the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik where he attends an international meeting on Iraq. While there, Mr. Powell will meet with key world leaders to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and prospects for reviving the road map peace plan.