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Diplomats try to save peace process

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, left, and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell meet with other leaders.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, left, and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell meet with other leaders.
Mary Altaffer, Associated Press

UNITED NATIONS — The United States joined senior envoys from the United Nations, the European Union and Russia on Friday to try to salvage the deteriorating situation in the Middle East with a new appeal to the Palestinians to stop suicide bombings and other attacks, and to Israel to exercise restraint in cracking down on terrorist groups.

Diplomats said the envoys agreed to have the European Union make an urgent new push to press Yasser Arafat to ensure that the designated Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, can crack down on Hamas and other groups responsible for bus bombings and other attacks in recent weeks.

Arafat selected Qureia last month after the resignation of Mahmoud Abbas, who tried and failed to get control of the numerous Palestinian security forces to carry out such a crackdown. Arafat controls most of those forces.

The European Union, which finances about a third of the Palestinian Authority's budget, has more influence on Arafat than the United States, which has refused to deal with him for a year and a half.

The United States, diplomats at the meeting said, would be asked to make sure that the Israelis did not move against Arafat, as Israel has threatened to do.

The U.S. approach may be bearing fruit, in that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said on Friday that the United States' objections to expelling Arafat would have to be taken into account. U.S. officials have said that Israel has assured the administration that it would consult before taking any action against Arafat.

An administration official said that Secretary of State Colin Powell said at the meeting that the United States would also press Israel to release prisoners, ease conditions in the West Bank and Gaza, dismantle some settlements and stop construction of a wall separating Israelis from Palestinians.

Powell said on Friday that the United States had for months been "encouraging Israel and putting pressure on Israel" to make various concessions to the Palestinian side. U.S. policy makers, sensitive to the political ramifications of Israel's position, almost never use the word "pressure" to describe what goes on between the two sides.

An envoy in the talks on Friday morning said the great fear among the participants was that an expulsion or possibly even a killing of Arafat — some Israeli politicians have called for his assassination — would produce a "conflagration" throughout the entire Arab world, producing a "catastrophic situation" in the region.

Following 90 minutes of meetings, Secretary-General Kofi Annan of the United Nations said he was "alarmed" by the situation and, in an unusually blunt assessment, acknowledged that the approach of the United States and its diplomatic partners had come to a kind of dead end in the Middle East.

That approach, enshrined in the peace plan known as the road map, calls for a series of small reciprocal steps by the Palestinians and the Israelis over a period of months and years, aimed at rebuilding confidence. It broke down last month after a suicide bombing that killed 23 Israelis and the resignation of Abbas.

Annan called for "bold steps" to salvage the peace. "Small steps have not worked."

Powell used the meeting on Friday to reiterate the U.S. intention to put pressure on both the Palestinians and the Israelis, but he asserted, as U.S. officials have repeatedly, that the main burden lies with the Palestinians to stop attacks on Israeli citizens.

The breakdown of the "peace process" under the aegis of the road map, as Powell said he saw it, occurred after Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad went back on their promises of a cease-fire and carried out attacks on Israeli citizens.

The Palestinian groups, by contrast, say they were driven to carry out these attacks because Israel had continued to kill, or try to kill, top Palestinian militants.

The four groups meeting on Friday are known in diplomatic circles as the quartet. Though Israel is openly disdainful of the Bush administration's willingness to negotiate its Middle East approach with Russia, the United Nations and the European Union, Powell and other U.S. officials defend this strategy.

In blunt terms, they assert that it is the best way to make sure that the European Union and Russia do not undercut U.S. efforts by trying to make their own side deals in the region. The United States has poor ties with the Palestinian Authority compared to the Europeans, many diplomats say.

The only sign of difficulties within the quartet came when Powell said the group had rejected a French proposal to convene an international conference on the Middle East. At a time when the United States is tangling with France over the future control of Iraq, the secretary said, "I don't see any immediate prospects for holding such a conference."