Powell Upbeat on Mideast Peace Prospects

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JERUSALEM — Secretary of State Colin L. Powell today began a whirl of new Middle East diplomacy, meeting with Israelis and Palestinians and declaring that he had new confidence the two sides will cooperate in the election of a Palestinian president.

In his first visit to Israel in 18 months, Powell said the consultations had left him "pleased with the level of coordination and cooperation that exists between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority to make sure the elections can be held."

"I saw a new attitude," he later told Israel's Channel One TV.

Powell said the two sides appeared to be settling on steps to ensure that Palestinians will be able to move freely enough within the militarized West Bank to register and vote in the Jan. 9 election of a Palestinian Authority president.

He also indicated that the Israelis will allow Palestinians in Israeli-controlled East Jerusalem to vote through mail-in ballots.

Direct conversations between the two sides on security issues related to the election will begin within days, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told a parliamentary committee, according to Israeli news media reports on the closed-door meeting.

Later in the day, a key leadership committee of Fatah, the dominant movement within the Palestine Liberation Organization, named Mahmoud Abbas as its candidate to succeed the late Yasser Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority. Arafat died Nov. 11.

The decision makes Abbas, the 69-year-old PLO leader and former prime minister, the early front-runner in the race. He must still gain backing from a broader Fatah committee this week, and that approval appears all but certain.

Powell's visit opened a period of intensified diplomatic activity that comes after many months of near paralysis.

Later this week, officials from the European Union, Russia and the United Nations will visit Israel and Palestinian territories for talks aimed at helping to arrange the elections, strengthen the nearly bankrupt Palestinian Authority, and prepare for the Israeli withdrawal of settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip.

Next month, two international groups involved in Palestinian reform will be meeting in Oslo to discuss ways to help carry out the elections, among other topics.

The diplomatic movement has come about in part because of the death of Arafat, with whom the Israelis and the United States refused to deal.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who met with Powell after the secretary of State held an early morning session with Sharon, told reporters at a new conference that "Israel will do everything in its power to ensure smooth running" of the elections.

Palestinian leaders sounded hopeful after Powell met with them and toured an election registration site in the West Bank city of Jericho.

"In all matters we discussed, there was a positive response," Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said. "I think this is a first step."

Palestinian officials asked for Powell's help to get the Israelis to lift travel restrictions, to ensure that East Jerusalem Palestinian voters can cast their ballots and to get financial assistance for their government, which has struggled to meet its payroll.

Palestinian officials have said the election would be meaningful only if voters among the 230,000 Palestinians living in East Jerusalem were allowed to cast ballots. During the last Palestinian Authority presidential election, held in 1996, Palestinians in Jerusalem voted by mail under terms of the 1993 Oslo peace accords.

Powell met with a number of Palestinian officials, including Abbas, Shaath, Prime Minister Ahmed Korei, acting President Rouhi Fatouh and veteran negotiator Saeb Erekat.

Afterward, Powell appeared alone before the media, out of concern that the U.S. should not appear to be endorsing any candidate — and out of a recognition that such an U.S. endorsement could hurt a politician.

Powell said he could make no final commitment on U.S. financial aid, which has been resisted by some congressional conservatives.

But Powell said he would convey to congressional leaders a "message of progress and the encouragement I draw from that message I think we can make a pretty good case that this is the time to assist the Palestinians as they move forward."

Last year, the United States appropriated $20 million in aid for the Palestinian government. The Palestinians need more money to keep their organization running, to conduct the election, and to reorganize their splintered security services, among other purposes.

Powell said he would take up the matter on Tuesday morning with other representatives of the so-called "quartet" group that has worked on Palestinian issues — the U.S., the European Union, the United Nations and Russia — at Sharm el Sheik, an Egyptian resort that is hosting an international conference on stabilizing Iraq.

Powell was cautious on the sensitive subject of Marwan Barghouti, a popular Palestinian leader who is serving a jail term for the murder of Israelis but who could conceivably be elected Palestinian Authority president.

Asked in the Israeli television interview about the chance that Barghouti could be elected, Powell said, "Right now we will have to wait and see who steps forward to be a candidate. The Barghouti problem is a complex one.

"He is in legal custody of the state of Israel," Powell said, "and that situation is not something that appears to be about to change."

Asked about Barghouti, Shalom said that the Palestinian "was sentenced for life, and he should stay there while he is responsible for the killing of so many Israelis."