U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell arrives in Israel Sunday for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on how to revive the long-stalled road map peace plan. Foreign Ministers from Russia and several European countries are also expected in the region over the next few weeks - all with the aim of jump-starting peace efforts.
In the wake of Yasser Arafat's death just over a week ago, the international community is launching a number of diplomatic initiatives in hopes of restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
Mr. Powell is the first to arrive here. He meets with Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom Monday morning. He then travels to the nearby West Bank city of Jericho for talks with the new interim Palestinian leadership, including PLO chief Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia.
The Palestinians want Mr. Powell to pressure Israel to withdraw its troops from the Palestinian territories and allow unhindered elections there January 9th. Israeli officials are quoted as saying they would consider such a request. Israel has also indicated it might coordinate next year's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip with the new Palestinian leadership.
Mr. Powell's visit will be short and is likely to be his last to this area as he prepares to leave office after announcing his resignation last week. At that time, the secretary said he wants to explore new possibilities in the aftermath of Mr. Arafat's death.
"I think a new opportunity has presented itself in the Middle East and President Bush has spoken to this, and hopefully over the next few weeks I'll be able to see how much potential there is in this new opportunity," he said.
During his four years in office, Mr. Powell traveled to the region on a number of occasions to try to negotiate an end to hostilities and to implement a variety of peace initiatives. The most recent was the internationally backed road map peace plan, officially launched by President Bush a year and a half ago in Aqaba, Jordan. But the plan stalled almost immediately and the violence escalated.
But with the death of Yasser Arafat, all sides say there's hope for new opportunities for peace. Secretary Powell's visit is meant to underscore that and President Bush's pledge to capitalize on those new opportunities.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the German and Spanish foreign ministers are also expected to visit the region in the coming weeks.
Amid all the talk of peace opportunities, violence in the Palestinian territories continues. On Saturday Israeli troops shot dead two Palestinian teenagers in the West Bank town of Nablus and a suspected militant near a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip. On Sunday, the group Islamic Jihad confirmed that one of its militants was shot dead by Israeli forces in Gaza.