- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 30, 2002

A flurry of phone calls, a productive Saudi summit and a small breakthrough on the ground left the Bush administration yesterday sounding its first cautious note of optimism for the Middle East after weeks of frustrating setbacks.
The State Department said an intense round of telephone diplomacy by President Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell during the weekend helped secure an agreement by Israel to lift its siege on the compound of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Ramallah.
After meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah in Crawford, Texas, last week, Mr. Bush phoned Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon three times to discuss Ramallah, and Mr. Powell's contacts included Mr. Arafat, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, British Foreign Minister Jack Straw, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
After weeks of complaints in the Arab world about the lack of U.S. action in the face of mounting Israeli-Palestinian violence, American diplomacy has kicked into a higher gear.
A deal to ease Mr. Arafat's monthlong confinement could come as early as today as British and American security experts met with Palestinian officials on the transfer of six Arafat associates wanted by Israel to a jail in Jericho.
Israel agreed to end Mr. Arafat's confinement if the six were placed under international guard.
"The president is pleased with the action over the weekend and pleased with the initial follow-through," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters yesterday of the deal easing Mr. Arafat's confinement. "But it's going to be closely monitored."
While Mr. Arafat will be free to travel, U.S. officials made it clear they expect him to increase efforts to curtail Palestinian violence.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the president stressed to Mr. Arafat the importance of maintaining security.
"There's a lot of elements involved in that stopping the terrorists before they strike, stopping terrorism, cutting off ties to terrorist groups, but also conducting the arrests, trials and keeping people in jail who need to be in jail," Mr. Boucher said.
Mr. Powell, talking to reporters after discussing the Middle East with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, expressed hope that a standoff between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants holed up in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity could be resolved soon.
"All the elements" for a breakthrough "are in place," Mr. Powell said. "There are some difficult discussions to take place, but I think it will be resolved in the near future."
The Bush administration is also the prime mover behind a meeting on the Middle East set for Thursday in Washington involving top diplomats from the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.
Crises such as the Ramallah siege, the Bethlehem confrontation and Israeli incursion into the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin have left little room for creative diplomacy in recent weeks. Mr. Powell's 10-day tour of the region earlier this month produced virtually no visible progress.
But National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said recent moves, including an eight-point land-for-peace plan pushed by Crown Prince Abdullah during his talks with Mr. Bush, provided an opportunity for all sides to go beyond reacting to the crisis of the day.
"We need to keep our eye on the big picture here," Miss Rice said, "and the promise of deeper Saudi engagement in the peace process would be a tremendous breakthrough for the entire process."
Miss Rice said the United States has not endorsed the entire Saudi plan because several of its elements must be negotiated by the parties in the region. But she said the fact that the Saudi regime, which has immense influence in the region, is pushing an ambitious peace plan represents an opportunity for Israel and its Arab neighbors.
Mr. Bush will try to build on the signs of momentum when Mr. Sharon and Jordan's King Abdullah II travel to Washington early next month.

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