Secretary of State Colin Powell said Monday he expects implementation, within 24 to 48 hours, of the U.S.-brokered deal for the lifting of the Israeli siege of Yasser Arafat at his Ramallah compound. He also says an end to the Israeli-Palestinian standoff at Bethlehem's historic Church of the Nativity may be near.
U.S. officials have made clear that ending the confrontations in Bethlehem and Ramallah are essential if there are to be broader steps toward a cease-fire and renewed peace talks. And after conferring here on the situation with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, Mr. Powell said "all the elements" are in place for a resolution of the Bethlehem standoff "in the near future", though some difficult discussions still remain.
The secretary said the siege of the Arafat compound, the focus of intensive U.S. diplomacy in the last three days, could be over by midweek.
"I would expect that within the next 24 to 48 hours all of the various details will be worked out," he said, "and hopefully a transfer will take place that will then allow Chairman Arafat to have the flexibility needed for movement around the occupied territories so he can take up his responsibilities once again to end the violence, end terrorism and to rebuild the functioning structures, recreate functioning structures, within the Palestinian Authority."
Mr. Powell said a U.S. diplomat would join in final talks on the transfer, from the Arafat compound to a jail in Jericho, of six Palestinian militants wanted by Israel. U.S. and British security officials are to monitor the move, after which Israel would pull remaining troops out of Ramallah.
The meeting with Mr. Fischer was part of an ongoing U.S.-European dialogue on the crisis, to be continued Thursday with the meeting here of the so-called Middle East "quartet," including Mr. Powell, European Union chief diplomat Javier Solana, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Mr. Powell convened the same parties in Madrid before he began his Middle East mission earlier this month in an effort to keep diplomatic efforts on a common track. In his comments here, Mr. Fischer said the United States is "in the driver's seat" in efforts to defuse the situation and has the full backing of the Europeans.
"I told Colin Powell that we will work, Germany will work, together with our friends in the European Union very hard, that we stick together to find common positions and then answers for a resolution of this crisis in the Middle East," he said. "We are neighbors next door. Europe is very close to the region. We have a very strong Muslim minority in almost all European states. So we are directly interested in peace and the end of terror and violence in the Middle East."
U.S. diplomats were also working to resolve the dispute between Israel and the United Nations that has prevented the dispatch of a U.N. fact-finding team to the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin, the scene of heavy fighting and alleged human rights abuses by Israel earlier this month.
The State Department urged U.N. officials to consider Israel's complaints about the composition of the inquiry team, and said it expects a "thorough and impartial" assessment of the events in Jenin. Israel says about 50 Palestinians were killed in fighting between its troops and militants at the camp, but that there was no massacre of residents as Palestinians have claimed.