Bush aide calls pullout a start, but not enough
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- The Bush administration renewed its demand Monday for an immediate Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories and said Israel's announced pullout from two West Bank towns is a start but not enough.
"I meant what I said to the prime minister of Israel -- I expect there to be a withdrawal without delay," Bush told reporters during a trip to Knoxville, Tennessee.
"And I also mean what I said to the Arab world -- that in order for there to be peace, nations must stand up, leaders must stand up and condemn terrorism."
As he stopped in Morocco on the first leg of a diplomatic trip that will take him to Israel later in the week, Secretary of State Colin Powell likewise expressed the U.S. desire for a speedy Israeli withdrawal.
Hours after Bush's comments, Israel announced it would begin pulling out of the West Bank towns of Qalqilya and Tulkarem.
The White House responded by saying it welcomed Israel's commitment to withdraw forces from the two towns but does not consider the pledge enough to meet the administration's demand for a complete Israeli pullback "without delay."
"It's a start," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said in a statement. "As the president said last Thursday, all parties in the Middle East have responsibilities and the president expects all parties to step up to them."
In remarks before the Knesset earlier in the day, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gave no timetable for an end to the military operations in Palestinian territories, except to say that it would be "as quickly as possible when the mission is completed."
Sharon told the Knesset the operations would continue until Israel is confident it has dismantled what he called a terrorist network under the control of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Israel's military operations were launched last month in response to a series of Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israelis, including a suicide bombing that killed 27 people celebrating a Passover dinner.
When current operations ends, Sharon said, the army would regroup into security zones to protect Israel from future Palestinian attacks. He did not specify where those zones would be situated, but the presumption was that they would be in the West Bank.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat, responding to Sharon's comments, said many Palestinians killed in the Israeli offensive were "innocents." Sharon is "leading Israel toward disaster" and seeking to "destroy Palestinian moderates," he said.
Following his remarks, Sharon met with U.S. Middle East Envoy Anthony Zinni, the prime minister's office said without mentioning what they discussed.
The White House said previously the meeting was set up for Zinni to emphasize the U.S. demand for an immediate end to Israel's operations in Palestinian territories.
Powell's difficult mission
There was concern among U.S. officials that the continuing Israeli offensive and Sharon's tough talk were complicating Powell's trip -- an already difficult diplomatic mission.
Powell arrived Monday in Morocco and met with King Mohammed VI in the resort town of Agadir. After a half-hour meeting with the king, Powell said Bush expects an immediate Israeli withdrawal because the operations are causing "significant and severe" problems in the Middle East.
We "understand the Israeli need for self-defense, but Israel also has to take into account [that] strategic problems created by this continuing operation are rather significant and severe when you see what is happening throughout the rest of the Middle East," he said.
Powell's reception from King Mohammed VI was cool. The monarch waited a couple of hours before meeting with Powell and when he did, he pressed the secretary of state on why he was in Morocco and not in Jerusalem.
"Don't you think it would be more important to go to Jerusalem first?" the king asked Powell at the beginning of their meeting.
Powell replied he needed more time to prepare for his visit there. He said he was trying to build a consensus within the Arab world and the European community to put more pressure on Arafat to renounce terror.
Morocco, like other Arab nations, has been wracked by anti-Israel demonstrations since the start of the Israeli military action. Officials estimated that 1 million people turned out Sunday in Rabat, the Moroccan capital, in one of the largest protests ever in the north African kingdom.
After his meeting with the king, Powell headed to Casablanca to meet with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah, whose land-for-peace plan between Israel and the Arab world was endorsed last month by the Arab League.
Other stops on Powell's itinerary are: Egypt, for a meeting with President Hosni Mubarak; Spain, for a discussion with European leaders, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov; and Jordan, for a meeting with King Abdullah; and Israel.
"When I get to Jerusalem, I'll make a judgment as to how long I'll stay there," Powell said Sunday. He said he might meet with Arafat during his visit here "if circumstances permit."
"I hope ... I will be able to rally the Arab nations, the European Union, the United Nations and others around the proposition that we need to get to a cease-fire and get to a political discussion as soon as possible," Powell said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."
The United Nations and the European Union both issued fresh appeals Monday for the Israelis to withdraw.
In his speech, Sharon also praised the Saudi peace initiative of Crown Prince Abdullah and said he would talk with Powell about a peace summit "with the responsible leaders in the Middle East." (Speech excerpts)
But the architect of the Mitchell peace plan for the Middle East said Monday he doubted the Arab leaders would meet with Sharon.
"I think most of the Arab leaders will take the position that the person for [Sharon] to see is Arafat and the Palestinians, and that they would not get involved between the two of them," said former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell.
Responding to Sharon's speech, Palestinian negotiator Erakat said the Israeli offensive and the Israeli prime minister's speech signaled "the end of the peace process, the end of the Oslo accords and the end of the Palestinian Authority."
Erakat had strong words for the United States, claiming its Middle East policy is ineffectual and one-sided.
"President Bush has been taking a cost-free role," he said. "It doesn't cost him anything to slug the Palestinians."
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