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US Hoping for Resolution of Bethlehem Standoff - 2002-05-06

The Bush administration says it is hoping for an early resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian standoff at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity to give a boost to U.S. efforts to re-start a Middle East peace process. Secretary of State Colin Powell met Monday with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal and was to see Jordan's King Abdullah later in the day.

Officials here see the Church of the Nativity confrontation as an impediment to broader U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East, and they are anxiously waiting for a negotiated end to the five-week-old standoff. Secretary of State Colin Powell says he believes a resolution of the Bethlehem affair is near at hand with only one or two minor problems to be settled. He told reporters after meeting Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal that an end to what he termed "this period of crisis" will open the way to a multi-pronged U.S. diplomatic effort. "Hopefully the situation in Bethlehem will be resolved in the not-too-distant future, and that we will then have the opportunity of completing the Israeli withdrawal," he said. "And we will be looking forward to working with the Saudis and other Arab leaders on all elements of our strategy the security dimension of that strategy, the economic dimension of that strategy, but most importantly, the political dimension of that strategy."

Mr. Powell said the initiative by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, offering Israel normal relations in return for withdrawal to 1967 borders, forms "one of the important elements" of the U.S. political strategy along with President Bush's April 4 call for an Israeli pullback and end to Palestinian terrorism. The United States, along with the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, announced plans last week for an international conference to be held as early as next month to chart a path to a renewed peace process. However, Foreign Minister al-Faisal, in his comments here, seemed unenthusiastic about a conference, calling it an idea that is being looked at. "The conference, or meeting, is not an objective in itself. It depends on what the meeting includes," he said. "And until these ideas are clear, I do not think we can give an opinion on that. But it is not a bad idea if the content is a proper content."

Mr. Powell, an hour later, met behind closed doors with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at his Washington hotel as a prelude to the Israeli leader's scheduled meeting with President Bush on Tuesday. Israeli officials had said in advance Mr. Sharon would give the Secretary of State a file of documents, many of them seized during Israel's West Bank offensive, that link Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to anti-Israeli terrorism. Administration officials have said that even if the documents are convincing, it does not remove the political necessity of dealing with Mr. Arafat in pursuit of the political settlement the United States is seeking with the help of Arab moderates.