Secretary of State Colin L. Powell met yesterday with the highest-ranking Palestinian official to visit Washington since the administration took office, giving a boost to the seemingly bleak Middle East peace process.
With his boss, Yasser Arafat, boxed in at his Ramallah office by Israeli tanks, Palestinian parliament Speaker Ahmed Qureia, also known as Abu Ala, came to the State Department to discuss moves toward a cease-fire.
Mr. Qureia’s Foggy Bottom visit follows his surprise meeting Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who until then had not met any Palestinian official since he took office a year ago. Mr. Sharon will visit Washington later this week.
Mr. Qureia told Mr. Powell that the Palestinians were taking action to end violence and noted that Mr. Arafat had explicitly condemned terrorism in a commentary published Sunday in the New York Times.
“We talked about everything about what’s on the ground, about what’s for the future and how to overcome all these problems and obstacles in front of negotiations and peace,” Mr. Qureia told reporters.
A State Department official said Mr. Powell had “underscored what we have been saying.” The United States is pressing Mr. Arafat to rein in violence and is tacitly condoning Israeli security measures that have paralyzed Palestinian economic life.
“There is no question that Arafat and the PA [Palestinian Authority] have the responsibility right now to take strong, resolute and irreversible action to halt violence and terror,” said the State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“If the PA acts seriously and effectively, Israel should move to alleviate economic pressure on the Palestinian people and ease closures. The secretary has not given up hope and will continue to work with both sides in as balanced a way as he can.”
Hassan Abdel Rahman, the Palestinian representative in Washington, refused to say what Mr. Qureia had discussed with Mr. Sharon last week or with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in New York during the weekend.
According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Mr. Sharon met Mr. Qureia and two other Palestinian officials to present a long-term interim settlement plan, beginning with a cease-fire.
Mr. Sharon has long advocated some interim agreement that would not require him to carry out the permanent land transfers set forth in the 1993 Oslo accords before a period of measuring the effectiveness of any peace arrangements.
Palestinians have rejected such a plan because they fear Israel could use it to drag out any land transfers and continue to expand settlements on Arab land captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Since the signing in Washington of the 1993 Oslo accords that pledged Israel to allow an independent Palestinian state to be formed on the West Bank and Gaza, the number of Jewish settlers on those lands has nearly doubled to about 200,000.
According to Haaretz, Arafat deputy Abu Mazen continued to reject the idea of another interim agreement, but Mr. Qureia, who participated in the Oslo peace talks, did not rule out the proposal.
The groundbreaking talks with Mr. Sharon are to be continued every two to three weeks.
Mr. Sharon is scheduled to arrive in Washington for talks with President Bush on Thursday, and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer also will be in Washington this week, raising expectations that diplomatic efforts could begin to thaw the long-frozen peace process.
In the Middle East, the militant Islamic group Hamas said it rejected Mr. Arafat’s pledge to halt terrorism made in the New York Times.
“We in the Islamic Hamas resistance are astonished at what was published in this article. We consider that Mr. Yasser Arafat has made a mistake in publishing these begging comments,” said the group, which has killed scores of Israelis in attacks during the uprising.
Israeli critics have noted that Mr. Arafat did not specifically name the groups Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the military offshoot of his own Fatah faction making suicide and other attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians.
Mr. Powell was quoted by a State Department official as saying that Mr. Arafat’s remarks were “welcome and a step in the right direction, but the important thing is action.”
In Gaza yesterday, Israel killed five Palestinians, continuing its attack on militants it fears.
Maj. Khaled Abu al-Ula, a senior Palestinian security official, said an Israeli helicopter fired a missile at the militants’ car. An Israeli security source said it was booby-trapped.