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Powell to Hold Talks with Arab Leaders in Jordan - 2004-05-15

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is enroute to Jordan to attend the World Economic Forum and to hold talks on the sidelines with Arab leaders, including Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia.

Mr. Powell decided to make the brief Middle East trip only a few days ago, as part of an effort to ease Arab concerns about the mistreatment of prisoners by U.S. soldiers in Iraq, and about the Bush administration's embrace of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan for disengagement from the Palestinians including withdrawal from Gaza.

President Bush drew widespread Arab criticism when in his meeting with Mr. Sharon last month he signaled U.S. acceptance of Israel retaining some West Bank settlements as part of a peace accord with the Palestinians, and a Palestinian right of return limited to an envisaged Palestinian state.

Mr. Powell and other officials later said the President was only taking note of realities acknowledged in past peace talks and it remained up to the parties to resolve the so-called final status issues of the peace process.

At a news conference capping a meeting of G-8 foreign ministers here Friday, Mr. Powell said the road map devised jointly in 2002 by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations remains the basis of U.S. Middle East policy:

"We reaffirmed our strong support for the vision of two-states, living side-by-side in peace and security - Israel and Palestine - and to the work of the quartet and its road map as being the best path to peace," he said.

Mr. Powell is expected to have a brief meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Qureia Saturday shortly after his arrival in Jordan. Mr. Qureia will also meet White House National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice Monday in Berlin in what will be his highest-level contacts with the Bush administration since assuming his post last November.

The Secretary of State will also meet Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath among other Arab officials on the sidelines of the global economic meeting at a Jordanian Dead Sea resort hotel.

In the text of an interview with the Arab TV network Al-Arabiya released before his departure for Jordan, Mr. Powell said he recognizes the level of disappointment Arabs have felt about the Bush-Sharon understandings.

But he said the Sharon plan raises the prospect of Israeli evacuation of settlements, a long-sought goal.

He said it is time for Palestinians to begin focusing on how they will exercise control over the vacated areas, and how the Sharon plan can be used to in his words: go aggressively down the path laid out by the road map.