WASHINGTON - Declaring that Israel's "occupation" of Palestinian territory must end, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell called yesterday for a return to a peace process aimed at finally ending the 50-year conflict and offered U.S. help to monitor a cease-fire.
In his first major foreign policy address, Powell spelled out in the most comprehensive way to date how the Bush administration envisions a peace agreement taking shape in the Middle East, saying both sides need to face "some fundamental truths."
Powell used some of the bluntest language of any U.S. diplomat in a decade, adopting the term "occupation" to describe the Israeli military presence in the West Bank and Gaza and saying Jewish settlements "cripple" the chances for peace.
He demanded acceptance of Israel as Jewish state by the Arab world and acceptance by Israel of a "viable" Palestinian state. He implicitly rejected Israel's claim to all of Jerusalem and said a settlement of the Palestinian refugee issue had to be both "just" - meaning a recognition of some Palestinian rights - and "realistic" - suggesting that the refugees can't return en masse to Israel.
Speaking at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, Powell said violence and terror had to end before serious talks could begin. He announced that he is sending two envoys to the region this week to consult with leaders on both sides and work to secure a cease-fire: William Burns, assistant secretary of state for the Near East, and retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni.
He said Zinni would remain in the region to work on a cease-fire previously outlined by CIA Director George Tenet. This will require that Palestinians achieve "real results - not just words and declarations" in preventing terror and punishing perpetrators, he said.
Powell also said the United States "remains ready" to join in an outside "monitoring and verification mechanism" that both sides can accept.
Once a cease-fire takes hold, he said, the United States would work "urgently" with Europe to rebuild the Palestinian economy, shattered by a year of conflict, as it pursues a plan for a return to negotiations spelled out by a panel led by former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.
Powell's speech follows a new Middle East peace initiative that was signaled 10 days ago by President Bush in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly. Bush sketched a vision of peace for the region in which Israel and Palestinians can live together side by side and for the first time used the Palestinians' name for their hoped-for country, Palestine.
Until recently, the administration had been reluctant to commit itself to the full-scale diplomatic effort required to get a new peace process under way. Mindful of former President Bill Clinton's dogged but futile effort, and the hardened positions among Israelis and Palestinians after more than a year of bloodshed, administration officials held off spelling out a long-term strategy until violence had stopped.
The Bush administration's initiative gained urgency in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and the U.S.-led war to destroy Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network in Afghanistan and other countries.
The administration has come under strong pressure from allies in the Arab world to show stronger determination to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This pressure is likely to continue if the United States seeks to build international support for ousting the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
Bush, speaking to reporters at the White House, said groundwork must be laid before the two sides are ready to negotiate seriously. "People must say that they want to work for peace. And so our objective is to convince both parties to make a conscious decision to come to the peace table."
Powell's speech offered incentives to and criticism of both sides. For Israelis, Powell showed empathy with their grievances, saying, "The lynching of Israeli soldiers in Ramallah, the assassination of the Cabinet minister and the killing of Israeli children feed Israelis' deepest doubts about whether Palestinians really want peace.
"The endless messages of incitement and hatred of Israelis and Jews that pour out of the media in so much of the Palestinian and Arab worlds only reinforces those fears," he said. "The incitement must stop."
But because the United States has demanded repeatedly that the Palestinians halt violence and terror aimed at Israelis and quell incitement, Powell appeared to offer few new incentives to Israel.
For Palestinians, the speech offered incentives and important rhetorical gestures that may be interpreted as a bid to win over Arab public opinion.
Powell said the occupation "has been the defining reality" of Palestinian lives for 30 years, adding that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians "have grown up with checkpoints and raids and indignities."
His call for a "viable" Palestinian state also marked an important step because it implied that the state's size, shape and contiguity can't be dictated by Israeli security concerns. A "just" and "realistic" refugee settlement suggested both that Palestinians were unfairly routed from their homeland and that their return en masse is impossible.
Palestinians "must eliminate any doubt once and for all that they accept the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state," he said. Israel "must be willing to end its occupation" as called for in U.N. resolutions "and accept a viable Palestinian state."
He said any solution on Jerusalem must take into account both sides' "religious and political concerns" and "protect the religious interests of Jews, Christians and Muslims the world over."
Both sides need to strive for "a just solution that is both fair and realistic" for refugees, he added.
Like several predecessors, Powell criticized Israeli settlement expansion, but his words were harsh. Settlement activity, he said, "cripples chances for real peace and security" and "must stop."
If Israeli officials were distressed by Powell's language, they didn't show it in their initial reactions. Privately, they voiced relief that Powell did not publicly contradict Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's demand for seven days of quiet before the beginning of steps leading to peace negotiations. "I think it was a very good speech. It reflected our shared values and our shared commitment to peace," said Raanan Gissin, a Sharon adviser.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said, "We had hoped to hear Secretary Powell say that the clock will start ticking now and that the Mitchell recommendations will be implemented immediately." But overall, he praised the speech, saying it hit the key concerns of occupation, checkpoints, humiliation and settlements.
Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian lawmaker who is also spokeswoman for the Arab League, told Arab media that she believes that Powell staked new ground in the debate. "It is the first time that the U.S. says that Israel's occupation is the main reason for violence and that the occupation must end and the settlement action must stop."
Israel's dovish foreign minister, Shimon Peres, who shares a coalition government with the right-wing Sharon, told an interviewer: "In the speech, there is vision, positions and there are commitments of the USA. ... There was no compromise on a cessation of terror, no compromise on security."