Powell peace push begins
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Diplomatic efforts to build on a fragile Mideast cease-fire are being stepped up with Israeli and Palestinian leaders meeting the U.S. Secretary of State.
Colin Powell has begun talks with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and is to meet separately Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, but has said it is up to them to set the pace for peace-making -- not Washington.
The meetings come as both sides blame each other for new violence in the West Bank and Gaza that injured eight Palestinians.
Powell said he hoped Sharon would better define what he told President George W. Bush this week -- that there would have to be "complete quiet" for 10 days before Israel would move to implement the next step of the Mitchell blueprint for peace.
The Bush administration believes that in recent days, there has been a "slight improvement" in the level of violence.
However, Sharon remains under tremendous political pressure at home to retaliate against Palestinian acts of violence two weeks after CIA Director George Tenet brokered the fragile cease-fire.
Following talks with Powell, Egypt's government insisted the Palestinians were doing their part for peace.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said: "We think Arafat is doing the most he can do. We hope the other side does the same."
While Powell has said he will not be bringing any new ideas, he hopes to lay out a timeline for the Mitchell plan with both parties.
"All of us believe that the Mitchell committee report is the essential plan, the essential document that must be used to try to bring a resolution to the crisis. It gives us a clear roadmap ahead," Powell said.
Under the Mitchell plan, the sides must implement confidence building gestures such as a freeze of Jewish settlement building after a truce and a cooling-off period have been implemented.
"Nobody is claiming that the level of violence is down where anybody could say it was either realistic or zero...But at the end of the day it is Mr Sharon who will make that judgment," Powell said in Egypt on Wednesday after meeting President Hosni Mubarak.
Around 600 people have been killed -- the majority of them Palestinian -- in nine months of fighting since a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation erupted last September after peace negotiations deadlocked.
Sharon has cast doubt on Powell's chances of success, but Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was more optimistic.
"I think with effort and patience it is possible to bridge (the gaps)," Peres told Reuters news agency.
"I don't think that any of us have a better alternative and all of us believe if the Mitchell plan collapses we will be left without an alternative."
Palestinians say the Mitchell report's call for a freeze on all Jewish settlement activity must be implemented in full, within six weeks, even if hostilities have not ceased entirely.
But Sharon told Israeli reporters in Washington late Wednesday after talks with Bush that Israel insists on a total halt to violence before pushing ahead with the plan.
"The total insistence on a total cessation of the terror - this is the only realistic approach to attain peace. It is not an obstacle on the path to peace, but quite the contrary."
Meanwhile, ending a state visit to France, Syrian President Bashar Assad said that the Bush administration has so far not acted strongly to defend peace in the Mideast.
Assad also accused Sharon of "pushing the region toward war," adding that Syria and Arab nations were exercising restraint, The Associated Press reported.
"The new American government has not really acted strongly in the region to defend the peace process," he added, speaking in Arabic at a rare news conference.
He added that "an American presence is necessary" in the peace process, but that Europe also had an important role to play.
Islamic countries closed a meeting in the West African country of Mali late on Wednesday with a fresh call for members to cut ties with Israel in support of the Palestinian revolt.
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