Powell push to revive Middle East roadmap

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The Independent Online

Colin Powell, the departing US Secretary of State, flies into Israel tonight to open a week of diplomacy aimed at helping to revive the Middle East peace process after Yasser Arafat's death.

Colin Powell, the departing US Secretary of State, flies into Israel tonight to open a week of diplomacy aimed at helping to revive the Middle East peace process after Yasser Arafat's death.

Mr Powell is expected to see both Ariel Sharon and the new Palestinian Liberation Organisation chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, tomorrow in the first of several efforts to revive the moribund internationally agreed "roadmap" to peace, now that Mr Arafat's death has removed what the Israeli Prime Minister had repeatedly claimed was a principal obstacle to negotiations.

Mr Powell's visit - and one starting on Tuesday by the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw - is unlikely to produce a dramatic new initiative. But diplomats believe Mr Sharon is under pressure to demonstrate a renewed willingness for contacts with the Palestinians after the recommitment to the creation of a Palestinian state made by President Bush and Tony Blair during their talks in Washington 10 days ago.

Mr Sharon last week proclaimed his readiness to "find any way, when the new Palestinian leadership is ready to open talks, to begin to advance our relations with the Palestinians", and appeared to modify his earlier demand for a successful crackdown on militant violence as a precondition to progress. Instead he called on the Palestinian Authority to eradicate "incitement" against Israel in PA-backed media and the school curriculum - something which he argues lies much more within the Palestinian leadership's control. So far, however, Mr Sharon has only held out the explicit prospect of talks on Israel's planned disengagement from Gaza next year.

One visitor missing from the flurry of diplomacy - which will also see a visit by the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov - is the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, who postponed his trip 36 hours after three members of Egypt's security forces were killed by Israeli tank fire on the border with Gaza.

Ahmed Qureia, the Palestinian Prime Minister, said yesterday that he would be pressing Mr Powell for a return to the original roadmap provision for a Palestinian state by the end of next year. He said the vague four-year timetable now envisaged by Mr Bush was a "dangerous" recipe for "the Israeli government to continue stealing our lands to build settlements and the [separation barrier]".

Mr Powell will reinforce US encouragement to Israel to facilitate the Palestinian presidential elections, planned for 9 January, by bringing a $20m (£11m) cheque for the PA to help pay for election supervision. Mr Straw will also offer practical help, not only with the poll but also with a new security control centre to operate in Gaza after Israel pulls out. The US, meanwhile, has agreed to hold a meeting of the international "quartet" - the US, EU, UN and Russia - overseeing the roadmap on the fringes of Tuesday's Sharm el Sheik summit on Iraq.

Though Mr Powell will be warmly received, Israeli officials have made no secret of their delight at his replacement by Condoleezza Rice, on whom they have lavished praise as a true "friend of Israel". Powell will hold talks with the transitional Palestinian leadership in the West Bank city of Jericho rather than in its base of Ramallah. Although security reasons were cited, the venue will also avoid a potential dilemma for Mr Powell over whether to pay a courtesy visit to Arafat's tomb.

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