Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Secretary of State Colin Powell reported 'progress' as he extended his stay in the region and headed into another round of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Tuesday.
His remarks followed a brief Israeli incursion into Tulkarem early Tuesday morning and a public statement by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Israeli troops in at least two PA towns would be withdrawn by next week.
Powell, who came to the area last week in the hope of establishing a ceasefire, has already met with Sharon twice and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat once. He is scheduled to meet with Sharon later on Tuesday and with Arafat on Wednesday.
"We are going to have good conversations, my staff and the Palestinian side today [Tuesday], and I look forward to seeing the Chairman tomorrow morning," Powell said on Tuesday before meeting with Palestinian civil society representatives.
"I think we are making progress and I look forward to furthering that progress over the next twenty-four hours.
"But I don't want to get into specifics as to what I'll be able to achieve and not able to achieve," Powell said in response to question about whether he could persuade the PA to enter ceasefire talks with Israel before Israel withdraws its troops and tanks from PA-controlled cities.
Israeli incursions into PA-controlled cities began 18 days ago following a series of deadly suicide attacks against Israelis. Israel's declared objective was the arrest of wanted terrorists, collection of illegal weapons and destruction of explosives laboratories.
Arafat indicated earlier he would not talk about a ceasefire until Israel had withdrawn its troops from the PA areas.
Sharon, who defied international pressure to withdraw, has said that Israel will re-deploy its troops only after it has completed its mission.
But on Monday evening in a live television interview, Sharon suggested that Israel was "on its way out" of Palestinian cities and would withdraw from everywhere except Bethlehem and Ramallah within a week.
Israel has no intention of remaining in what Sharon called "cities of terrorism," the prime minister said on CNN. Israel will pull out of Jenin within "a couple of days" and of Nablus in "not more than a week," he said.
Despite the statement, Israeli troops and tanks briefly entered the city of Tulkarem on Tuesday. Israel had pulled out of the city last week. According to an army spokesman the action was aimed at arresting wanted terrorists.
Military sources also said that two Arab neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem were put under curfew on Tuesday.
Powell did not seem to be disturbed by the fresh incursions but hinted that any agreement between Israel and the PA could be less than an actual ceasefire.
"I'll be discussing all these issues [ceasefire and incursions] with both sides in the next twenty-four hours," Powell said.
"The specific term 'cease-fire' has not quite the same significance as what actually happens, as opposed to a specific term. We're working on it," he added.
Since violence erupted in September 2000, there have been numerous ceasefire declarations, including several brokered by U.S. officials, including former President Bill Clinton. But none of them has ever taken hold.
Neither side was particularly optimistic that Powell could have a substantial affect on the situation during this visit.
According to diplomatic sources, in his meeting with Sharon, Powell will also brief the prime minister on his trip to Beirut and Damascus on Monday.
Powell, on a one-day trip, tried to convince Lebanese and Syrian leaders to rein in Hizballah attacks along Israel's northern border before the militant Islamic group drags the region into war, he said.
Powell will also brief Sharon on Palestinian-US talks in Jericho on Monday. Following his meeting with Arafat on Sunday, Powell said that US and Palestinian officials would continue to meet while he was gone.
The meeting in Jericho was described as "pretty good" by diplomats. "I think the people felt like they made progress," one diplomat said.
Officials refused to discuss the content of the meeting but media reports suggested that Palestinian and US negotiators are working on a joint statement, which would condemn suicide bombings and endorse the creation of a Palestinian state.
It would require Israel to leave two of the four Palestinian towns it still occupies within a week.
US Embassy officials say that it is still not clear how long Powell will stay in the region and that that decision is being taken day by day. Media reports suggested on Tuesday that he would stay until the end of the week.
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