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Israeli Foreign Minister 'Reassured' After Talks with Powell - 2003-12-12

Secretary of State Colin Powell held talks with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom Friday after meeting the night before with the Palestinian co-author of an unofficial Middle East peace plan that has drawn Israeli criticism. Mr. Shalom says Bush administration support for the international road map to an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord has not diminished.

Aides to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon have been openly hostile to the idea of Mr. Powell meeting with unofficial peacemaking teams that include left-leaning Israeli politicians. But after a 45-minute meeting with Mr. Powell, the Israeli Foreign Minister seemed reassured by what he heard from the secretary of state about those contacts.

Mr. Shalom said Mr. Powell told him that while there are many initiatives around, the "only game in town" is the international peace "road map" that the secretary himself initiated and has been endorsed by both the Sharon government and the Palestinian authority.

"I have just heard from Secretary Powell that he would like to see both sides implementing the road map but he doesn't say that he can't have the meeting with the others, if they have their initiatives," he said. "But he believes that there is only one plan that was agreed by the two parties and by the international community, and it's the 'road map.' And those meetings don't say that the Americans are abandoning the road map. On the contrary, he believes that he and the administration should do everything to bring both sides to track."

The secretary of state met late Thursday with Palestinian educator Sari Nusseibeh, who along with the former chief of the Israeli "Shin Bet" security service Ami Ayalon, have drafted an unofficial peace plan calling for a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Mr. Nusseibeh and Mr. Ayalon have collected 200,000 signatures on petitions being circulated in the two communities in support of their peace plan, which is similar to the unofficial "Geneva Accord" by former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo.

Mr. Powell met with the "Geneva Accord" authors a week ago despite an admonition by a top aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that such a meeting would be a mistake.

Both plans call for an Israeli withdrawal from virtually all of the West Bank and Gaza, for Jerusalem to be the shared capital of Israel and the Palestinian state, and for Palestinian refugees to forfeit a right of return to areas that would stay under Israeli jurisdiction.

Mr. Shalom said his government welcomed U.S. help in resuming peace talks with the Palestinians under the "road map" immediately and without preconditions and said Mr. Sharon wants an early summit meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia.

The Israeli foreign minister came to Washington from Rome, where he attended an international donor's conference for the Palestinian Authority and took part in the first cabinet-level talks between the sides in several months.