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Powell: Israeli Withdrawal Should Take Place 'As Soon as Possible' - 2002-04-06

Secretary of State Colin Powell preparing to leave Sunday on a critical Middle East mission says Israel should not wait until his arrival in the region to begin its pullback from Palestinian areas. He spoke after talks Friday in Washington with Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Al-Muasher.

Mr. Powell is unlikely to have his first talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders until late in the coming week. But he is making clear Israel should not try to use the intervening time to continue its military drive in the Palestinian areas.

Meeting reporters after his session with the Jordanian minister, the secretary said both President Bush in his Middle East policy statement Thursday, and the U.N. Security Council in its latest resolution on the crisis, are calling for an immediate pullback.

"I think that the president's statement yesterday was rather clear, and the interpretation is further reinforced by the U.N. resolution last night, that the president's expectation is that the incursion will stop and the withdrawal process will begin as soon as possible, or without delay, whichever formulation you choose," he said. "And it is not related to my trip. As soon as possible and without delay that is the president's expectation."

The secretary said while ending Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed is his immediate priority, the political dimension of the crisis is of key importance, and he said the Bush administration wants to bring a renewal of peace talks, in his words, "as far forward, and as early into the process as possible."

Foreign Minister Al-Muasher, who spoke as a small group of pro-Palestinian activists demonstrated nearby, said the peace overture to Israel by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah endorsed last week by the Arab League provides such a political opening.

"We feel we have been able to come up with a historic document that promised a collective end to the conflict that promised a collective peace treaty between the Arab states and Israel, that promised security guarantees and an agreed solution to the refugee problem," said Mr. Al-Muasher. "And in that I think we came up with something that addressed the needs of all peoples of the region, Arabs and Israelis alike. It is an initiative that is serious and that is one we intend to push through, even though the present difficulties might overshadow it for the time being."

Secretary Powell, in the course of a week-long mission to the area, is expected to meet with among others the Saudi Crown Prince, Jordan's King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak along with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Under questioning, he did not rule out meeting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, even though White House spokesman Ari Fleischer had said earlier there were no plans for a Powell-Arafat meeting. Mr. Powell said no Arafat meeting had been set, but that the schedule for the trip was still being arranged.

While calling for the Israeli pullback, the Bush administration is putting pressure on Mr. Arafat to both renounce - and crack down on - terrorist factions operating from Palestinian areas.