Powells visit proves relations between Israel, U.S. are changed

JERUSALEM — If Secretary of State Colin Powell made anything clear during his visit this week to Israel and the Palestinian-controlled city of Ramallah, it was that things have changed since President Clinton left office. First, there was the duration of his visit — one day — with Powell's meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders wedged in between stop-offs in Egypt and Jordan.

Second, there was the absence of U.S. proposals — a hallmark of the Clinton era — aimed at ending the more than five months of Israeli-Palestinian violence and forging a final peace accord. Third, there was Powell's insistence that Israel lift the economic sanctions it has imposed on the Palestinian Authority.

While Powell called on both sides to end the violence and return to negotiations, he had little else to suggest to the two sides in his public comments other than that it is up to them to make the "hard decisions" that will enable them to return to the road of peace.

Since President Bush took office in late January, U.S. officials have said that while they will continue to pursue Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, it is but one facet of their overall Middle East policy.

Indeed, Powell's trip to the Middle East — his first since becoming the top U.S. diplomat — appeared to be less about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than getting Arab support for U.S. policies aimed at containing Iraq.

Powell's regional tour was slated to include a stop in Kuwait to attend celebrations marking the 10th anniversary of the end of the Persian Gulf War.

During meetings with Arab leaders this week, Powell discussed the need to keep sanctions against Iraq in place — first imposed in the wake of the war — in order to deal with the threat posed by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

In fact, during a joint news conference with Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon on Sunday, Powell stressed that Saddam had to be restrained.

Citing German intelligence reports that Baghdad might have nuclear weapons in three years, Powell said, "We have to make sure that we do everything we can to contain" Saddam.

As Powell arrived in Syria for talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad, a state-run Syrian newspaper sharply criticized the emphasis on Iraq.

A front-page editorial accused Powell of ignoring the killing of Palestinians by Israeli forces.

During their meeting, Powell and Assad discussed the peace process, sanctions against Iraq and the oil it imports from Iraq through a pipeline to the Mediterranean.

The United States believes that Syria, which is seeking a seat on the U.N. Security Council next year, will halt the imports, thereby complying with U.N. sanctions against Iraq, a senior U.S. official told Reuters.

The difficulty of putting an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was underscored by several incidents that took place during Powell's visit.

As Powell was urging the two sides to take steps to stop the cycle of violence, two Israeli settlers were wounded in separate shooting attacks in the West Bank. The commander of Israeli forces in the area said it is possible the two attacks were linked.

He noted that Powell's visit could have given Palestinian groups greater motivation to carry out such attacks.

After meeting Sunday in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, Powell called on Israel to lift the economic "siege" it had imposed on the areas under Palestinian control since violence erupted last September.

Later Sunday, Israel announced that it was taking a step aimed at implementing at least a part of Powell's requests: The Israeli army lifted roadblocks it had set up last week that had divided the Gaza Strip into two.

For his part, Arafat used his joint news conference with Powell to call on the United States to ensure that Israel pick up negotiations from where they left off under outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

After meeting with Powell, Sharon said, "One thing should be clear: Israel will not negotiate under pressure of terror and violence."

Sharon denied that any negotiations were under way with the Palestinians. But he acknowledged that there existed "channels of communication" for conveying messages to the Palestinians.

Sharon called on Arafat to publish "an unequivocal declaration to his people to stop the violence" as one of three steps that must be met before Israel will agree to ease economic restrictions against the Palestinians. Sharon also called for the Palestininan Authority to "take action to stop the incitemen" and to renew Israeli-Palestinian security coordination.