- The Washington Times - Monday, April 8, 2002

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell says Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon assured him yesterday he is "trying to expedite" withdrawal of troops from cities it has occupied in the West Bank, but he gave no time frame for completing the job.
"He did not give me a specific timetable of the withdrawal, but I know he is trying to expedite the operation, to get it over with as soon as possible. And we'll see what happens in the next couple of days," Mr. Powell said yesterday on NBC's "Meet the Press."
The secretary made his remarks just hours before embarking on a crucial trip to the Mideast, where he hopes to drum up support among Arab leaders for getting a cease-fire to end the violence between Israelis and Palestinians and get them back to the peace table.
A cease-fire, he said, "must be our goal." However, he acknowledged he is not sure he will obtain one.
On Saturday, President Bush told Mr. Sharon to withdraw his forces from the West Bank "without delay," and many interpreted that as meaning immediately.
But the Israeli government yesterday praised the army's West Bank attacks, designed to root out terrorists and prevent more Palestinian suicide-bombings, and it did not say when it would pull out from Palestinian cities, Reuters news agency reported.
In a statement issued by Mr. Sharon's office in Jerusalem following the weekly Cabinet meeting, the prime minister said "a difficult campaign is under way and much has been achieved." The statement made no mention of withdrawing the troops.
According to Reuters, Israeli commentators expect the withdrawal to begin by the time Mr. Powell visits the region later this week, following stops in Morocco, Egypt and Spain.
On NBC yesterday, Mr. Powell said, "I'm planning to visit Prime Minister Sharon Thursday or Friday," adding that he will hold such a meeting whether or not the troops' withdrawal has been completed.
Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer, interviewed yesterday on ABC's "This Week," said Mr. Bush did not mean that the troops should pull out from the West Bank immediately. The operation "needs time," Mr. Eliezer said.
Mr. Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, who both made multiple appearances on Sunday talk shows, said the administration recognizes the withdrawal cannot be completed in a day. However, Miss Rice said on CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer" that Mr. Bush used the word "now" in his telephone conversation with Mr. Sharon Saturday, when he demanded the withdrawal.
On CBS "Face the Nation," she said, "The important point is to begin now, without delay. Not tomorrow, not when Secretary Powell gets to the region, but now."
Zalman Shoval, a top adviser to Mr. Sharon, confirmed on "Meet the Press" that Mr. Sharon has promised President Bush "we're going to expedite" the withdrawals.
"But we don't want to do this again. We don't want to be put in a position where we withdraw, suicide bombings go on and in a few weeks from now, we have to do this over again," Mr. Shoval said.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a member of the Armed Services Committee, said on ABC's "This Week" he believes the Israelis will withdraw. "But I do believe the Israeli government's first obligation is to capture and neutralize as much as possible these elements that are in the Palestinian area that continue to pose a threat to the lives of their citizens," he said.
In appearances on NBC and "Fox News Sunday," Mr. Powell said he would meet with Mr. Arafat this week "if circumstances allow." He has refused to make a firm commitment to meet with Mr. Arafat, whom the administration has criticized for failing to make a public statement urging an end to the Palestinian suicide-bombings in Israel.
In an interview yesterday on CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer," Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, expressed doubts about whether Mr. Powell should sit down with Mr. Arafat, citing evidence he's seen that the chairman of the Palestinian Authority has "personally paid terrorists."
The documents in question were obtained by Israeli officials after their troops stormed Mr. Arafat's Ramallah compound in the West Bank a week ago Friday. On Thursday, Israel made public two documents it says were signed by Mr. Arafat, authorizing payments totaling $6,000 to 15 Palestinian militants wanted by Israel for bombing attacks and shootings. Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told the Los Angeles Times he believes the documents were forged.
On CNN yesterday, Mr. Specter called on Mr. Powell to analyze the handwriting on the documents. If the secretary concludes it is Mr. Arafat's, he should not meet with the Palestinian leader, Mr. Specter said.
A CNN-USA Today poll released last week found that 77 percent of Americans think Mr. Arafat should be treated as a terrorist.
Mr. Powell said he thinks the jury is still out on Mr. Arafat. "We have to maintain contact with Palestinian leaders," he said, and at this time Mr. Arafat is the top leader.
The secretary-general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, told ABC Mr. Powell's trip will be a failure if he doesn't meet with Mr. Arafat.
Mr. Powell said that as deaths climb on both sides, "the consequences [of Israels military action] are affecting Israel, the United States, and the interests of peace and the interests of the political process." He expressed concerns that U.S. relationships with some Arab countries are starting to be "damaged, perhaps irrevocably."
However, Mr. Powell acknowledged the "massive presence" of Israeli troops in the West Bank has been a "deterrent" to suicide bombers and other terrorist attacks. He said Mr. Sharon told him Israeli troops prevented a car bombing yesterday.

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