- The Washington Times - Monday, February 26, 2001

JERUSALEM Israeli and Palestinian leaders rebuffed visiting Secretary of State Colin Powell yesterday when he appealed for an end to five months of violence in the region.
In Ramallah, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat failed to promise an end to stone-throwing mobs and attacks on Israelis by Palestinian gunmen, which have brought the region to the brink of war. About 350 Palestinians and 50 Israelis have died in the violence since late September.
Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon also turned a deaf ear to Mr. Powell, who asked him to relieve pressure on the Palestinian economy by transferring taxes collected for the Palestinians and easing the blockade of Arab cities and towns.
Mr. Sharon said he would neither ease the economic pressure nor open peace negotiations until Mr. Arafat ends the violence.
Also yesterday, Mr. Powell said he had not expected the strong reaction in the Arab world against the U.S. bombing of Iraqi radar sites two weeks ago.
"We probably could have done a better job of coordination with Arab allies," he acknowledged.
Mr. Powell and his party traveled in an armored convoy from Jerusalem to Ramallah, navigating a maze of new roads to avoid the sites of recent shootings and then changing drivers and vehicles to enter the Palestinian town.
Nearly all the shops in Ramallah were closed by a general strike called by leaders of Mr. Arafat's Fatah faction to protest Mr. Powell's visit.
Bystanders neither waved nor smiled. One group of people waved posters of Saddam Hussein.
Mr. Powell said he was deeply impressed at seeing firsthand how closely interlocked the Palestinian towns are with Israeli settlements.
Mr. Arafat, who flew from his home base in Gaza to Ramallah for his first visit to the West Bank in several months, praised Mr. Powell's visit, sent regards to President Bush and said he looked forward to a strong relationship with the new U.S. administration.
But he did not offer to reduce or eliminate the violence, telling reporters it was the Israelis who were "sending tanks, armored vehicles, using bombs that are prohibited internationally [and] using helicopter gunships."
Mr. Sharon was equally reluctant to pick up on Mr. Powell's suggestions.
"It is absolutely clear that in order to ease the closure [of the West Bank and Gaza] there are certain steps Chairman Arafat will need to take… . It should be very clear that there should be a cessation of hostilities," Mr. Sharon said.
The hawkish former general, who won a landslide vote Feb. 6, has been vilified by Arabs for his tough behavior as a soldier in five wars since 1948 and his aggressive policy of building Jewish settlements on occupied Arab land.
But Mr. Powell said Mr. Sharon appeared to be doing all he can to reach out to Palestinians and reduce the violence. Still, he said, Israel must "lift the siege as soon as possible so that economic activity can begin again in the region."
Asked if he was disappointed by Mr. Sharon's refusal to hand over $57 million in customs duties and other taxes that had been collected on behalf of the Palestinians, Mr. Powell said he had not asked directly for such measures because "his position was there had to be a reduction of the violence."
Mr. Powell made clear that America's commitment to the security of Israel is rock solid and will remain so under the Bush administration.
He made no similar commitment to the Palestinians. But he did voice concern over those killed and injured in the past five months.
The continued strong U.S. backing for Israel has disappointed many in the Arab world who believed that Mr. Bush would end what they saw as a pro-Israeli policy by President Clinton.
Mr. Powell was in the middle yesterday of his first solo overseas trip as secretary of state, a four-day swing through the Middle East beginning with Egypt on Saturday, followed by Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Kuwait yesterday, and ending with Syria and Saudi Arabia today.
Tomorrow, he meets NATO leaders in Brussels en route home.
"I came away concerned about the region because of the level of violence but at the same time encouraged that [Mr. Sharon] understands the challenge that is before him," Mr. Powell said during the flight to Kuwait.
He indicated that he saw no sign of flexibility in the positions of Mr. Arafat during talks that were described as "candid and brisk."

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