U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is preparing to leave Washington late Sunday on a crucial Middle East mission, has telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to again press for an early end to Israel's military drive in the West Bank. He is expected to spend about a week in the region, seeking an Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire and a way to resume a political dialogue.
Mr. Powell phoned the Israeli leader only hours before his scheduled departure for the region to again press for a pullback of Israeli forces from the Palestinian areas without delay.
Making the rounds of Sunday television talk shows, Secretary Powell said he was pleased with Mr. Sharon's stated commitment to "expedite" the process because he said the military operation will not change the need for a political solution to the conflict.
He told interviewers on the NBC network his immediate objective of his trip was a ceasefire but that he also recognized the urgency of a renewed political dialogue.
"Whatever the level of violence is today, what we know for sure is that it must go down to a level where the two sides can start talking to one another because the only solution is a political solution, one that will allow both peoples to live in peace, in separate states," said Mr. Powell. "One a Jewish State called Israel, the other one a Palestinian state called Palestine. That must be our goal. And no matter how difficult the situation looks today, we must not lose sight of that vision."
Giving the first official details of his itinerary, Mr. Powell said he would go first to Morocco to meet King Mohammed and also meet there with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah, author of a peace overture to Israel that the Bush administration believes could be the basis for an eventual settlement of the conflict.
He will also see President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and confer on the Middle East with the European Union and Russian Foreign Ministers in Madrid before heading back to the Middle East for meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders later in the week.
Mr. Powell put heavy stress on the need for America's Arab allies to do more to try to persuade Palestinian leaders to renounce terrorism and said Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, even in his current situation of virtual Israeli house arrest in Ramallah can do more to get that message out.
He said he would meet Mr. Arafat during his mission if circumstances permit, but pointedly said he would reach out to other prominent Palestinian figures. Mr. Powell said he was unsure whether the trip, his third to the region, would produce a cease-fire, but said he was prepared to spend whatever time was necessary to "move the process along."