The United States is calling on Israel to exercise "utmost" restraint after its forces moved into two West Bank refugee camps Thursday in pursuit of Palestinian militants. At least ten Palestinians and an Israeli soldier were killed in the action, which overshadowed new diplomatic contacts on Saudi Arabia's peace proposals.
The Bush administration has said the main burden rests with Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority to curb violence in order to open the way to peace talks. But it reacted strongly to the Israeli push into the refugee camps, with an expression of concern by the U.S. embassy in Israel and a public appeal from State Department spokesman Richard Boucher for Israeli forces to show "utmost restraint."
"These are very heavily-populated areas," said Mr. Boucher. "We understand that Israel needs to take steps to provide for its own security. But at the same time they need to avoid harm to civilians, particularly in areas like this. They need to exercise restraint and they need to look to create an environment that's conducive to further steps toward peace."
Mr. Boucher said Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke by telephone earlier with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on both the need to stop the violence and to continue Israeli-Palestinian security meetings, like the one held Thursday at the crossing point between Israel and the Gaza strip.
Mr. Powell also spoke with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and Powell aides say both discussions also dealt with the Saudi proposal for Arab-wide recognition of Israel, if it withdrew from all Arab land occupied in 1967.
Though the Bush administration says the ideas advanced by the Saudi Crown Prince fall short of being a comprehensive peace plan, spokesman Boucher says the Saudi overture is welcome and in line with administration calls for an ultimate solution in which two states, Israel and Palestine, can live side-by-side in peace and security.
"They've laid out a vision which we think is important, both for what it is and for the fact they did it," Mr. Boucher went on to say. "That it is consistent with the vision that President Bush and Secretary Powell laid out last fall, that we think it is an important part of the process to make clear what's down the road. But we've also said the parties needs to negotiate all these issues."
Both President Bush and Mr. Powell have spoken by phone with Crown Prince Abdullah to discuss the overture and the State Department's senior official for the Middle East, Assistant Secretary William Burns, was dispatched on a lightning two-day mission to Saudi Arabia this week for more detailed talks.
In an interview with The New York Times published Thursday, Mr. Powell said the Saudi initiative was "easily said" but a "very difficult concept to get total agreement on."
He said the plan is not a "solution in and of itself" but does, in his words "add something to the equation" and that Vice President Dick Cheney would seek to "flesh out" the Crown Prince's ideas on his upcoming trip to the region.