Powell patches Mideast peace

In Jordan, US envoy pushes Palestinians and Israelis back to talks after weekend of violence.

Secretary of State Colin Powell and other international leaders reaffirmed Sunday their commitment to Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, even as the two sides seem locked in an impasse of mutual recrimination and distrust.

"What we're trying to do with the road map is to get both parties to meet their obligations and move forward," Secretary Powell said, referring to the road map peace plan drafted last spring by the US, the United Nations, theEuropean Union, and Russia.

The high-level meeting, on the fringes of the World Economic Forum in Jordan, comes after four days of Israeli-Palestinian violence that has slowed the road map's progress.

Israeli and Palestinian officials are grappling over security control in the Gaza Strip and the challenge posed by the militant group Hamas, steps required in the first stage of the peace plan.

Their lack of progress stems not only from Israeli concerns about the Palestinian ability to deliver on security, but from Palestinian doubts about Israel's commitment to the road map, particularly after the Saturday killing of a senior Hamas leader.

The impasse also underscores the weakness of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who faces a political dilemma as he tries to defuse Hamas at US and Israeli insistence.

Powell's appearance at the forum followed a flying visit to Jerusalem and Jericho on Friday, when he met separately with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Mr. Abbas.

Israeli media reported that Powell spent much of his time with Mr. Sharon poring over maps of the Gaza Strip, offering the familiar image of a senior American leader arriving with a grand vision of Israeli-Palestinian peace and ending up mired in tiny details.

The detail in this case is a road running through the Gaza Strip.

Palestinians want full control over Gaza, a Hamas stronghold. Israel, citing doubts about the Palestinian ability to ensure security, insists on maintaining a military presence at junctions along this road, which leads to three Israeli Jewish settlements.

Israeli officials point to attacks in the last few days to underscore their point about security concerns. They also raise this concern in discussions about their extrajudicial killings of militants.

In road-map discussions, Palestinians have insisted that Israel stop the practice, arguing that it ruins their chances of establishing a cease-fire with militant groups. Israelis, however, have received qualified approval from the US to continue striking at "ticking bombs" - militants, they say, are about to carry out an attack.

"We can understand the situation of a 'ticking bomb' when there is an immediate threat that has to be dealt with," Powell said in Jordan Sunday.

He acknowledged Palestinian concerns by adding that "anything outside that has to be looked at in light of our need to move forward."

Palestinians argue that the Israeli definition of a "ticking bomb" stretches to encompass all their desired targets and represents no change in policy. They also charge that the killings indicate an Israeli desire to scuttle the road map by making it impossible for Palestinians to establish a cease-fire.

"How can we be so convincing [to militant groups about a cease-fire] when such things are happening?" asked Nabeel Kassees, Palestinian Authority Planning Minister, speaking to the media in Jordan.

Mr. Kassees was referring to the killing Saturday night of Hamas leader Abdullah Kawasme after evening prayers at a Hebron mosque. He was shot by border police who say he was resisting arrest.

Israelis say Mr. Kawasme, commander of Hamas's military wing in Hebron, was responsible for the death of 52 Israelis including the 16 who died in a June 11 bus bomb in Jerusalem.

And Powell, in his remarks, made it clear that the US considers the group to be a major tumbling block.

"We should put the blame where it belongs ... on organizations like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, which continue to conduct attacks, requiring response from the Israeli side," he said. "The burden goes to their organizations."

For Abbas, Hamas represents a serious problem. The group is widely popular among ordinary Palestinians for its social services and for its reputation; unlike Abbas's Palestinian Authority, it is not seen as corrupt.

Palestinians see Israeli and US insistence that Abbas crack down on Hamas as an invitation to civil war. Abbas is now trying to defuse the situation by roping Hamas into a unity government, a solution that is unlikely to appease Israel.

As the pressure grows for Abbas to act against Hamas, analysts say it will alienate ordinary Palestinians. "More Palestinians will come to the conclusion that [the road map] was a big mistake, causing a lot of damage and not accomplishing anything," says Mark Heller at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

For its part, Hamas has predictably sworn revenge for the Kawasme's killing, a promise to extend the steady violence that began June 18 with the shooting death of a 7-year-old Israeli girl whose parents were driving past a Palestinian town in the northern West Bank.

On June 19, Islamic Jihad claimed a bombing that killed Tzvi Goldstein, a grocer in northern Israel. On the same day, Israeli police battled settlers for 12 hours in the first dismantling of an occupied outpost - small buildings Israeli Jews use to expand settlements in the occupied territories.

Hamas claimed responsibility for the June 20 death of a US-born settler who was shot while driving to his son's wedding party on Friday. Israel responded the next day by killing Kawasme. The US will follow up the current talks in Jordan when national security adviser Condoleeza Rice arrives in Israel June 27.

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