- The Washington Times - Monday, November 22, 2004

SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt — Israel pledged yesterday to ease its military hold on the West Bank in order to allow Palestinians free movement to campaign and vote in Jan. 9 presidential elections to replace the late Yasser Arafat.

The promise came during a visit to the Middle East by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, his first in 17 months and last as the top U.S. diplomat.

Although the one-day trip, which included meetings with both Israeli and Palestinian officials, did not achieve any breakthroughs, it marked the Bush administration’s renewed interest in diplomacy after Mr. Arafat’s death on Nov. 11.

“Israel will do everything it can in order to ease the conditions for the Palestinians to have their own elections,” Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said at a press conference with Mr. Powell in Jerusalem.

“And it includes, of course, freedom of movement,” he added. “We will do everything we can in order to remove any obstacle that they might face in their preparations to have their elections.”

Mr. Shalom warned, however, that Israel would not “do anything that might damage or harm the security” of its people.

Palestinian officials reacted to Mr. Shalom’s pledge with skepticism.

“We do not trust these Israeli declarations,” said senior Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) official Yasser Abed Rabbo.

Mr. Shalom also stopped short of promising the withdrawal of Israeli forces from West Bank population centers before the election, as Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas demanded during their meetings with Mr. Powell.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was the first to meet with the secretary in the morning, later told lawmakers that the “danger of terrorism” prevents any troop pullout from the West Bank.

Mr. Powell held his discussions with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank city of Jericho, instead of in Ramallah, home to the Palestinian Authority headquarters and where Mr. Arafat is buried.

The secretary also visited the Jericho office of the Central Elections Commission and later flew to the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik for a conference on Iraq attended by more than 20 countries.

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