JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli leaders told Secretary of State Colin Powell yesterday that they will do their utmost to allow Palestinian elections to take place, including easing travel restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In a sign of improving ties after four years of Mideast fighting, Israeli officials also said they are willing to renew talks with the Palestinians on some issues, including security, and to coordinate the aftermath of Israel’s planned withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank in 2005.
Israel had refused to negotiate with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Arafat’s death Nov. 11 provided a “moment of opportunity that should not be lost,” Powell said.
He told Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom that the United States wants to seize the moment, and to make sure Palestinian presidential elections are held Jan. 9, as planned.
Later yesterday, Powell met with Palestinian officials in the West Bank town of Jericho and visited a voter registration office there.
Palestinian officials asked Powell to ensure that Israel withdraws troops from West Bank population centers ahead of the elections. They said he did not pass along any specific Israeli commitments regarding the vote.
Shalom said it is in Israel’s interest to see the Palestinian elections go forward. “The first priority is the Palestinian election which will hopefully bring about a Palestinian leadership with whom we can sit down and address all the issues on our agenda,” he said after a meeting with Powell.
“I have reassured the secretary today that Israel will do everything in its power to ensure their smooth running,” he said.
Shalom did not say whether Israel would pull back troops.
He said the Palestinians would have “freedom of movement” in the run-up to the elections. He said Israel would coordinate the arrangements with the Palestinians but would not compromise on security.
An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Shalom also told Powell that Israel is willing to resume talks with the Palestinians on some issues, including security.
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 Troops have since withdrawn from some areas, but continue to enforce travel restrictions on Palestinians.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.