Powell Says Ceasefire 'Not Relevant Term' In Israeli-PA Conflict

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Secretary of State Colin Powell wrapped up his Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire mission somewhat empty-handed on Wednesday, saying the term "ceasefire" was "not relevant" at this time.

PA officials reacted angrily to Powell's mission, saying the situation on the ground had actually gotten worse since his arrival. But Israel said it did not view Powell's mission as a failure.

Powell, who spent a week shuttling back and forth between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, spoke to a Jerusalem news conference after a difficult morning meeting with Arafat.

"We could have [had] a ceasefire declared today but what would it mean?" Powell asked.

"One side is still pursuing an operation that they are bringing to a close but they have not yet brought to a close, and the other side is not in a position to respond because the incursion has not yet ended...and so 'ceasefire' is not a relevant term at the moment," he added.

Nevertheless, Powell said, a ceasefire would become relevant as soon as the Israeli incursion ended and security discussions resumed.

Powell, who was going to Cairo for talks with the Egyptian Foreign Minister on Wednesday, said he was leaving Ambassador William Burns in the region to continue talks with the two sides. CIA Chief George Tenet and Gen. Anthony Zinni would also likely return to the region to get involved in the talks, he said.

Powell said he had received assurances from Sharon that Israel would withdraw its troops within a "week or so," and he said he had emphasized to Arafat the need to make a strategic choice to abandon violence.

President Bush last week demanded an immediate Israeli withdrawal from the PA-controlled cities. But Sharon defied international and U.S. pressure and said Israeli troops would stay until their mission was accomplished.

"Prime Minister Sharon has stated his intention to complete Israel's withdrawal from the areas it recently occupied," Powell told reporters. "He has provided me with a timeline through this weekend, and as you all know, reservists are now returning home."

Israel's Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz announced this week that Israeli reservists, who received emergency wartime call-up notices about three weeks ago following a series of suicide bombings, would be released from the army following Israel's Independence Day on Wednesday.

Powell, who opened the press conference by congratulating Israel on its 54th Independence Day anniversary and reaffirming America's commitment to Israel's 'unshakeable security," said Washington had made no secret of its disappointment with Arafat's performance.

"We believed all along [Arafat] could have done more [to stop terror]," Powell said.

"I made it as clear as I can to him that we have been disappointed with his performance and its time for him to make a strategic choice [to abandon violence]," he said.

"If he does not make that strategic choice it becomes very difficult for the United States or anyone else to play a role in achieving what the Palestinian people want."

Following Powell's meeting with the Palestinian leader in Ramallah on Wednesday, an angry Arafat charged that Israel's pledged troop withdrawal was not sincere.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that Powell had left the situation on the ground "much worse" than when he had arrived. He also accused Sharon of having "torpedoed" Powell's efforts.

Several hours prior to the meeting, Arafat said that Powell had accomplished nothing during his time here.

"Powell had spent more than one week in the region, a week and a half in the region but nothing has happened," Arafat said in a telephone interview with Tunisian state television.

He also said that international and Arab action was needed "as quickly as possible because the situation is highly dangerous."

Sharon's foreign policy advisor Danny Ayalon said on Tuesday that Israel did not regard Powell's mission as "a failure."

According to some unconfirmed reports, Powell will be returning to the region himself in about 10 days time.\fs23