Powell in new effort to rescue Middle East peace plan

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Indy Politics

Colin Powell, the American Secretary of State, is planning to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders at the end of the week as the United States steps up efforts to rescue the peace process.

General Powell is expected to meet Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, and Abu Mazen, his Palestinian counterpart, in an effort to put the "road-map" peace plan, personally backed by President George Bush, back on track. But the Secretary of State is unlikely to meet the leaders of Hamas, the leading Palestinian militant group and the other key player in the crisis.

Abu Mazen has been left to call for all sides to return to the negotiating table after Hamas vowed to bomb Israel "to rubble" and Israel vowed to "wage a war to the bitter end" against Hamas. Abu Mazen began long-delayed talks with leaders of Hamas and other militant groups yesterday in an attempt to persuade the group to accept a six-month ceasefire, after Egyptian mediators failed to win an agreement.

Before he got down to the talks with Hamas, Abu Mazen had his first talks with John Wolf, the American diplomat appointed by President Bush to monitor progress on the road-map.

While Mr Wolf and Abu Mazen talked in Gaza, Avi Dichter, the head of Israel's Shin Bet security service, arrived in Washington. According to Israeli media he was summoned to "explain Israel's security qualms and demands". Mr Dichter met Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's National Security Adviser, and was also expected to hold talks with George Tenet, the CIA director.

The two weeks since the Aqaba summit have seen Mr Bush's achievement overshadowed by tit-for-tat violence between Israel and Hamas. In the latest incident last night, a seven-year-old Israeli girl was shot dead in a gun attack near the West Bank town of Qalqiliya. A woman and a second child were also wounded during the shooting on a road near the town in central Israel.

The upsurge in violence follows last week's attempts by the Israeli army to assassinate the most prominent leader of Hamas's political wing just as the group was discussing resuming ceasefire talks -a move that drew harsh criticism from the White House and which 40 per cent of Israelis believed was a deliberate attempt to delay the road-map, according to a poll. A day later, a Hamas suicide bombing on a bus in Jerusalem killed 17 people. Since then, President Bush's ire has been directed at Hamas. A hardline speech by Mr Sharon to the Knesset, Israel's parliament, on Monday - in which he said a truce from Hamas would not be enough, demanded that Palestinian security forces crack down on the group, and said there would be no peace process as long as there was violence by the militants - has left the road-map looking in more trouble than ever.

The aim of General Powell's visit will be to get both sides moving on the road-map again. He was already due to travel to Jordan for a meeting of the "Quartet" - the grouping of the US, Russia, the EU and the UN who drew up the road-map. The last time General Powell was in the region, Israel announced it was allowing Palestinians to cross from the occupied territories into Israel for work, only to enforce one of the toughest closures of recent times on Gaza when the Secretary of State left. This time, General Powell will be looking for more commitment from both sides.

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