Powell offers Israelis more time to withdraw from the West Bank

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The Israeli army's withdrawal from the West Bank will probably take some time, Colin Powell said on the eve of his peace mission to the region, apparently granting even more wriggle room to the Israelis, who have all but ignored American pleas for restraint so far.

Having already waited several days to begin his high-profile diplomatic mission to the Middle East, and despite continuing American demands for an immediate Israeli military withdrawal, the Secretary of State said in a series of television interviews that he was not expecting to meet Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, before Thursday.

He left open the question of whether he would meet Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader besieged in his Ramallah headquarters, during the trip, which will include stops in European and Arab capitals as well as Israel itself. General Powell said that although President George Bush wanted the withdrawal from cities nominally under the control of the Palestinian Authority to begin immediately, there had been no talk of when it might end. "It isn't going to be over when they do start to withdraw. It's not going to be over in a day. It took a while to do it, and they are still conducting operations."

General Powell also softened the degree to which Mr Bush had thrown down the gauntlet to Mr Sharon in their telephone conversation on Saturday. "The President doesn't give orders to a sovereign Prime Minister of another country," he said. "But as one of Israel's best friends and most supportive friends, I think Prime Minister Sharon has taken very much to heart and he understands clearly the message the President gave to him. We'll see how the Prime Minister responds in the very near future."

It was not clear whether General Powell's words were prompted by residual sympathy for Israel – Mr Bush said recently he understood why Mr Sharon felt compelled to act the way he did to combat terrorism – or by embarrassment at the way the Israelis have ignored American demands.

Nevertheless, both General Powell and Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser, spelt out the grave dangers for the region that they saw if the violence that erupted 17 months ago was not quickly brought under control.

"We have to realise that, sooner or later, Israel will withdraw its forces, and those same pressures will be there, that same frustration will be there, that same anger will be there," General Powell said.

"We may well be radicalising a new generation [of Palestinians], many more terrorist waiting to act once this incursion is over."