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Powell Plans to Re-Engage with Both Sides in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict - 2002-02-23

Secretary of State Colin Powell says he intends to engage in a new round of telephone diplomacy with leaders in the Middle East in the face of rising Israeli-Palestinian violence.

The secretary's attention has been diverted from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as he accompanied President Bush on his Asian trip. But on the flight home from China Friday, Mr. Powell told reporters said he would spend a "good part of the weekend" re-engaging with both sides.

Mr. Powell said the administration is concerned the escalation of violence this week, which saw some 25 Palestinians killed in Israeli military action in the West Bank and Gaza following an attack on an Israeli checkpoint Tuesday that killed six Israeli soldiers.

But Mr. Powell also said there were positive developments, including the Palestinian Authority's arrest of three militants wanted in the assassination of an Israeli cabinet member, and Friday's resumption of U.S. sponsored talks between senior Israeli and Palestinian security officials.

Meanwhile, the State Department's top Middle East expert, Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, was meeting here with an emissary of Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler Crown Prince Abdullah to discuss the Saudi leader's recent peace overture.

Crown Prince Abdullah told The New York Times last week the Arab world should be prepared to normalize relations with Israel if it gave up all Arab land occupied in the 1967 war. He said he had intended to present the initiative to the Arab summit next month in Beirut, but decided to shelve the idea because of recent harsh steps by Israel in the Palestinian areas.

However the Saudi leader has not repudiated his original remarks, which were welcomed here by State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. "What we've seen, and what we've said has been to welcome the comments that we've seen from Saudi Arabia underscoring their willingness to reach out to Israel to talk about peace, to talk about normalization of relations," he said. "We think these are significant and positive steps that have been endorsed now publicly by other governments in the region including Egypt. They do highlight the importance of not giving up the goal of a just and lasting peace, and the need to do all we can to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

Mr. Boucher refrained from endorsing the specifics of the Saudi plan, saying the Bush administration continues to support last year's proposals of the Mitchell committee and the cease-fire plan of CIA Director George Tenet as the roadmap back to peace talks.

He said ending the violence remains a precondition for a renewal of full-scale U.S. efforts including the negotiating mission of special envoy Anthony Zinni, and said the main burden for this continues to be on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.