JERUSALEM (AP) – Secretary of State Colin Powell challenged Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s limited withdrawal of troops from Palestinian areas yesterday, saying President Bush “wants to see more progress.”

Paul Wong
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, right, embraces Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres as he arrives at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv yesterday. (AP PHOTO)

On his way to Jerusalem, Powell said the pace of the Israeli pullback from West Bank cities and villages would be part of a “very long conversation” he would have with Sharon today. They spoke by telephone yesterday.

Powell is to meet with Yasser Arafat tomorrow. A senior administration official in Washington said Powell intends to warn the Palestinian leader that the United States is prepared to sever ties with him unless he renounces terrorism.

“The message is: This is it. Last chance,” said the official, speaking only on condition of anonymity. The official cautioned that Powell and Bush will not sign off on the message until the meeting draws closer.

During a brief stop in the Jordanian capital of Amman, Powell was asked at a news conference whether the pace of Israel’s military withdrawal was an affront to Bush.

“I don’t see it as an affront,” he said. Still, Powell added, “I think the president has made his position clear: He wants the incursion stopped. He has noted some progress, but he wants to see more progress.”

In what appeared to be a gesture ahead of Powell’s arrival, Israeli forces withdrew from about two dozen small towns and villages on the West Bank. But troops entered the West Bank towns of Dahariyah and Bir Zeit and the Ein Beit Hilmeh refugee camp. Later, they pulled out of Bir Zeit after detaining about 300 people, mainly students in the university town.

In the Jenin refugee camp, scene of the deadliest fighting during the offensive, three dozen armed men, apparently the last holdouts, surrendered to Israeli troops.

Sharon acknowledged the fighting was causing the United States difficulties, but he refused to call a halt to the incursion.

Powell said King Abdullah II of Jordan had offered his country’s help in easing the suffering of Palestinians in the West Bank once a cease-fire is in place.

“People are dying, people are suffering,” the king told CNN. He said he offered Powell his kingdom’s support in his peace mission, which he called “a make-it or break-it trip.”

Abdullah urged Powell to increase pressure on Sharon to withdraw his troops and to accept Arafat as “the legitimate leadership and elected president of the Palestinian people,” according to a palace statement issued after the two-hour meeting with Powell.

The king also urged Powell to work toward a detailed peace plan, setting “specific time frames” for a Palestinian state as well as ending the violence and Israeli occupation.

Previewing the difficult talks ahead, Powell said, “I go committed to carry forward the president’s vision.” He said he would press not only for ending the bloodshed, but for “getting a political track started” that would lead to the creation of a secure Palestinian state.

It is important, Powell said, “to show the Palestinian people that there is hope out there, hope for them to have their own state, living side by side in peace with Israel.”

In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said that while Israel was withdrawing some troops neither side had yet met conditions outlined by Bush to end hostilities.

“The president calls on all the parties to keep working to get them done,” Fleischer said.

Earlier yesterday, Powell challenged the idea that strong Israeli military action on the West Bank could enhance security from terror. Mirroring an argument pressed by Arab leaders, Powell depicted the Palestinians as angry and frustrated.

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