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U.S. Planning International Conference on Middle East

By Alan Sipress

The Bush administration has begun planning for an international peace conference on the Middle East early this summer to accelerate negotiations over a final political settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced Thursday.

He said the gathering would take up not only political issues but include discussions over stemming violence by Arab militants and enhancing the economic prospects of the Palestinians.

At the same time, the conference would address the broader regional conflict with the aim of making progress on long-stalled peace talks between Israel and its northern neighbors, Syria and Lebanon, according to officials involved in discussions about the gathering.

Powell’s announcement came after he met at the State Department with senior diplomats from the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, all of which will be involved in preparations for the conference and are expected to be its sponsors. The invitation list will include Israel, the Palestinians, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon and perhaps other Middle Eastern countries, officials said.

The new U.S. effort to advance negotiations came on the same day that the House and Senate endorsed Israel’s West Bank offensive against the Palestinians, adopting the symbolic expression of support over administration warnings that this would hamstring its policy.

By proposing a new forum for simultaneous talks about political, security and economic measures, administration officials hope to bypass the current stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians about the timing of political and security steps. The Palestinians are offered talks aimed at giving them their own state and the Israelis have a new opportunity to pursue improved ties with other Arab governments.

While details about the conference remain sketchy, the decision to call one represents an effort to build momentum after Israel’s recent withdrawal from most West Bank cities and the release of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from a month-long siege inside his compound in Ramallah.

“This is a time for prompt action to take advantage of this new window of opportunity that has been presented to us. And we intend to do just that,” Powell said.

He was speaking at a joint news conference with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Foreign Minister Josep Pique of Spain, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency. The diplomats represent a new group, dubbed the quartet, which was formed last month during Powell’s trip to the Middle East and Europe.

“The United States with our partners in the quartet will spend the weeks ahead to begin to not only talk amongst ourselves, but with the parties and with other interested members of the international community to come up with a set of principles that can be the basis for a meeting in the early summer,” Powell said. Powell’s thinking is to convene the conference on the level of foreign ministers rather than presidents, prime ministers and kings, according to a senior State Department official. This would avoid objections from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon about meeting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and from some Arab heads of state about meeting Israelis.