Secretary of State Colin Powell says the Bush administration is ready to re-engage in peace-making efforts between Israel and the Palestinians. In a talk with reporters late Monday on a flight to Mexico, Mr. Powell said he is "impressed" with the way Palestinian leaders have dealt with Yasser Arafat's health crisis.
Mr. Powell says it remains to be seen what kind of leadership might emerge in the Palestinian movement after the death of Mr. Arafat, who has been hospitalized and apparently gravely ill in Paris.
But the secretary is expressing optimism about the relative calm that has prevailed in the region since Mr. Arafat's health crisis began and is promising that the United States stands ready to re-engage in regional peace efforts "as soon as it is appropriate."
In a talk with reporters en route to Mexico City for a meeting of the U.S.-Mexican Bi-National Commission, Mr. Powell said fears of a violent power struggle among Palestinians in the absence of Mr. Arafat have, thus far, been unfounded:
"Since he went to the hospital in Paris I have been impressed by the manner in which the Palestinian leaders, back in the territories, have been discussing among themselves how to move forward, not yet knowing what Mr. Arafat's fate is," said Mr. Powell. "And, other than the Tel Aviv bombing, which was terribly unfortunate, things have been relatively quiet. I hope that sense of quiet and calm can be maintained and it gives us something to work with."
Mr. Powell would not venture to guess how long it might take for a new leaders to emerge in the event of Mr. Arafat's death, and whether they could be partners in peace making. But he said the United States remains in touch with all the parties and has made it clear to them that, in his words "we're ready to engage as soon as it is appropriate to engage."
The United States broke off dialogue with Mr. Arafat two years ago, accusing him of failing to curb -- or even encouraging -- terrorist attacks against Israel while refusing to cede control over Palestinian security services.
The Bush administration has been prodded British Prime Minister Tony Blair, among others, to give the Middle East peace process a higher priority.
In his airborne news conference, Mr. Powell said the United States is carefully watching the situation, with regard to Mr. Arafat, and is standing by ready to work very actively to get the international "road map" to Middle East peace moving forward again.