Secretary of State Colin Powell held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as he began the critical part of his Middle East peace mission. Mr. Sharon said Israel will end its military drive in the West Bank "very soon," but gave Mr. Powell no commitment on a withdrawal timetable.
Mr. Powell has pressed for an immediate end to the Israeli incursion, arguing it is harming both the strategic interests of Israel in the region and those of the United States. But it was clear after the initial meetings, lasting more than four hours, that the secretary heard no specifics beyond Mr. Sharon's statement that Israel would end its war against what he called "the infrastructure of Palestinian terror" very soon.
At a joint press appearance with Mr. Sharon, the secretary said the Bush administration understands the need for Israel to defend itself from terror attacks, but he said there must be something more than a military response to bring peace to the region.
"I hope we can find a way to come into an agreement on this point, the duration of the operations, and get back to a track that will lead to a political settlement, because I think that is uppermost in everyone's mind. How can we go forward? We do understand what terrorism is, and as we have responded to terrorism, we know that Israel has a right to respond to terrorism. The question is, how do we get beyond just the response? What is the next step? How do we get past that?" Secretary Powell said.
Mr. Powell, who is scheduled to go to Ramallah to meet besieged Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat Saturday, is pressing both sides to implement the long-stalled cease-fire plan of CIA Director George Tenet, and to move forward on an accelerated basis to peace talks based on last year's recommendations of the Mitchell Commission.
The secretary will press Mr. Arafat to take a tough stand against terrorist elements, and has repeatedly stated during his trip that Israel, which holds him a virtual prisoner at his West Bank headquarters, must deal with him as the elected representative of the Palestinian people.
In advance of Mr. Powell's arrival here, Israel said it was withdrawing from more than 20 Palestinian villages and towns, though its forces remain in the major West Bank population centers, including Ramallah.
The talks here also covered the tense situation along Israel's northern border with Lebanon, where Israel has responded with air strikes and artillery against pro-Iranian Hezbollah fighters, who have fired mortar shells and rockets into Israel in apparent solidarity with Palestinians.
Mr. Powell, who was given a helicopter tour of the border area by Israeli officers, said all those with an interest regional peace must play a role in restraining "aggressive activity," and said U.S. diplomatic contacts on the issue will continue.