Secretary of State Colin Powell pressed Israel and the Palestinians Wednesday to take more confidence-building steps to advance the "road map" to Middle East peace and shore up the political standing of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. Mr. Powell met Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom to begin a round of Middle East diplomacy that will include a White House visit by Mr. Abbas Friday and one by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Tuesday.
Emerging from an hour-long meeting with Mr. Shalom, Secretary Powell expressed pleasure with steps the two parties have taken on the "road map" including Israel's hand over of security to the Palestinians in Bethlehem and parts of Gaza, and action by the Palestinians to curb anti-Israeli incitement.
But he said much more needs to be done including, he suggested, broader prisoner releases by Israel making clear the U.S. interest in enhancing the political standing of Prime Minister Abbas as he wrestles for power with Yasser Arafat. "It is our objective to enhance his position. I think that is the position of the state of Israel. And we'll do everything we can in the meetings that are coming up with Prime Minister Abbas this week, and Prime Minister Sharon next week to do that for the benefit of the Israeli people and the Palestinian people," he said.
Mr. Shalom, for his part, said Israel is willing to move forward with its "road map" obligations but said it is time for the new Palestinian leadership to take a "strategic decision" to dismantle the infrastructure of groups responsible for anti-Israeli terrorist attacks. "We think it's very important not to let those extremists from the Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, to take advantage of this time to rebuild their infrastructure and we can't allow extremists to blow up the peace process," he said.
The talks here included the controversial barrier the government of Israeli Prime Minister Sharon is erecting to separate Israelis from the Palestinians in the West Bank.
Under questioning, Mr. Powell said his Israeli counterpart "is aware" of U.S. concerns about the project and that the United States will examine the next phase of fence construction and whether or not it helps the peace process.
Mr. Shalom said the fence is of the "same model" as the one that has long separated Israel from the Gaza Strip and that is aimed at preventing terrorist attacks against Israel not impeding Palestinians from crossing to work in Israel or other activities.
The Israeli foreign minister said he hopes moderate Arab states will be motivated to seek peace with Israel now that they are no longer "frightened" by the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.
Mr. Powell said it is "his expectation" that leaders of a new democratic government in Iraq will "find it in their interest" to seek peace with Israel and their other neighbors.