The US wants to take advantage of new opportunities in the Middle East and supports Palestinian presidential elections set for Jan. 9, outgoing US Secretary of State Colin Powell told Israel's prime minister yesterday.
Powell spoke at the start of a meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Powell was to hold talks with Palestinian leaders later yesterday in the West Bank town of Jericho and visit a voter registration office there.
The Palestinians say they want the US to exert pressure on Israel to withdraw troops from West Bank population centers ahead of the elections in which a successor to Yasser Arafat as Palestinian Authority president will be chosen. Arafat, who also headed the PLO and the ruling Fatah party, died on Nov. 11.
Israel reoccupied West Bank towns during a 2002 military offensive aimed at halting Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel. Troops have since withdrawn from some areas, but continue to enforce travel restrictions on Palestinians. Palestinians say they need freedom of movement for the vote.
Powell said yesterday that the US will do what it can to ensure peaceful elections.
Without referring to Arafat by name, Powell said: "This is a moment of opportunity. We look forward to the Palestinian elections that will be held on Jan. 9."
Powell reiterated that the Palestinians must rein in militants. "Violence must be ended," he said.
The interim Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is trying to persuade militant groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to halt violence during the election campaign, but it is not clear whether they will agree to a truce.
Powell, meanwhile, said Israel and the Palestinians must nenew their commitments in the US-backed "road map" peace plan, which was launched in June last year, but never got off the ground.
"All sides must be prepared to meet their obligations under the road map," he said.
The plan requires Israel to freeze settlements in the first phase, and asks the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups.
Sharon praised Powell as a "friend of Israel" and wished him well. Powell resigned earlier this month, and is to be replaced by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
The US supports Sharon's plan of "unilateral disengagement" from the Palestinians, including a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements next year.
However, US officials have said Sharon's plan must be part of the road map, not an alternative.
The road map envisioned the establishment of a Palestinian state by next year, but US President George W. Bush said recently that he'd be pushing for Palestinian statehood in the next four years.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia has urged the US to stick to the original timetable, and this demand was to be raised in yesterday's meeting between Powell and Palestinian leaders.
The Palestinians also seek US help in rebuilding their security agencies, which were left in tatters by four years of fighting with Israel. They also ask for Washington's support in an Dec. 9 pledging conference of international donors.