- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 12, 2002

Talks this week with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are part of a process leading to the declaration of a comprehensive U.S. "vision" for the Middle East, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday.

Mr. Sharon, meanwhile, had what an Israeli source described as "very positive" meetings with congressional leaders, who announced strong support for Israel in its struggle with the Palestinians.

Mr. Powell said he and President Bush, who met Mr. Sharon on Monday, will meet later this week with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. Talks have already been held with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco.

"And that does complete this round of consultations," which began with a presidential policy speech on April 4, Mr. Powell said.

"And then, I think, in the very near future, [Mr. Bush] will make known to the American people and to the world, and to especially the people in the region, his vision of how to move forward."

Mr. Powell stressed that Mr. Bush, in remarks on Monday, had not withdrawn U.S. support for an international conference on the Middle East to take place at the ministerial level.

"I think we still see utility in planning for such a conference in the course of the summer," said Mr. Powell. "We haven't backed away from the idea yet."

Congressional leaders yesterday gave Mr. Sharon a warm endorsement ahead of his return home to face continued Palestinian violence.

"There is no disagreement in this country on support for Israel," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat.

In the Middle East, Palestinians voiced anger about Mr. Bush's remark Monday that "Israel needs to defend herself."

"The Israeli aggression will escalate because Sharon has received a green light from Bush," said Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator. "He has a plan to destroy the peace process and the Palestinian Authority."

But Mr. Powell said the president "not only understands Israel's right to defend itself, he also understands the need for us to find a political way to move forward so that we can deal with Israel's need for security and the need of the Palestinian people for a future in a state that they can call their own."

In his meetings with House and Senate leaders and foreign affairs committees, Mr. Sharon faced few or no questions on the thorny issues blocking a peace agreement Israeli settlements on conquered Arab land and Palestinian demands for a migration of refugees into Israel, said congressional sources.

"They talked about the options for bringing peace to Israel, one of which is to somehow see Arafat removed from the equation, as he doesn't have the full support of his people," said one congressional source, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Mr. Sharon said he believed that, within 10 years, there will be a Palestinian state, said another congressional source who was at some of the meetings. But there was no talk of what its boundaries might be.

"There wasn't much criticism the [Senate Foreign Relations] Committee wanted to indicate its support for Israel," said the source.

An Israeli official said Mr. Sharon was well aware of the importance of support from Congress, as demonstrated in a recent letter signed by 94 senators and 321 representatives.

On his last visit to Washington, on May 15, Mr. Sharon canceled meetings with Congress to rush home after a suicide bombing.


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