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Update: On the Ground

April 8, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Secretary Powell began his mission in the North African kingdom of Morocco. For an update we go to Todd Purdum, the chief diplomatic correspondent of The New York Times, by telephone. He’s in Casablanca where Powell was scheduled to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, author of an Arab peace plan.

Thanks for being with us, Todd. Why did this trip start in Morocco, and what is being asked of the Moroccan king?

TODD PURDUM: Well, Elizabeth, it started in Morocco in part because there’s a long tradition of sympathy for both American interests here and sympathetic interaction with Israel. When Henry Kissinger began his shuttle diplomacy, at the end of the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, his first stop was in Morocco. Secretary of State Jim Baker made a stop here as he was building support for the Gulf War more than a decade ago.

So Secretary Powell came here today to speak with King Mohammed to help build support among moderate Arab states, to put pressure on Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians to stop suicide bombings, to stop the tactics of terror that have prompted the Israeli occupation that has so upset the Arab world. That’s what Secretary Powell is hoping to do in the beginning of this week before he heads to Jerusalem.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The King reportedly asked Powell, “Don’t you think it was more important to go to Jerusalem first?” What did Powell respond to that?

TODD PURDUM: He did, the King did ask him that, and we did not hear, in the meeting, Powell’s direct response to the King, but afterwards Secretary Powell told reporters traveling with him that he had explained that he felt it was important to come visit the Arab leaders and go to a meeting of European Union officials in Madrid on Wednesday and Thursday to pave the path toward negotiations when he gets to the Middle East, and to make clear that America expects help from its Arab allies, that it stands in solidarity with its European allies in trying to end the violence, and that the downside– which Secretary Powell did not say– is that the American administration clearly realizes Israel is going to take some time to conduct the withdrawals. They expect them to begin, as the President said, without delay, which Secretary Powell said means now. But the worst thing, from the Bush Administration’s point of view, would be to have Secretary Powell arrive in Jerusalem and have the occupation still running full steam ahead. So there is a hope that by the time he gets there on Friday, some progress will have been made on the ground already.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I want to get into more about the upcoming week, but first, what about the big demonstrations today in Morocco? Some reports are saying they’re the largest so far.

TODD PURDUM: You know, I’m not too aware of demonstrations today. We’ve been in the bubble with the Secretary, but there were very large demonstrations on the streets of Rabat yesterday, half a million people or more, which officials– both American and Moroccan officials– tell us were the largest demonstrations in memory here. They were described as largely peaceful with some chanting of anti-Sharon and anti-Israeli slogans, some burning of American flags on the fringes of the demonstrations, but no notable violence apparently, and no breaching of American facilities.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: There are some reports here, now, going to what happening in the talks that are coming up, that what the Secretary wants to do is to get together some kind of multilateral discussions based on the Saudi peace proposal. Is that what you’re hearing?

TODD PURDUM: You know, you hear it both ways, Elizabeth, and it’s just not possible for me to tell you what’s going to happen until it happens, and I think the Administration is holding out all possibilities. President Bush has made it clear that Secretary Powell has a wide latitude on this trip, that if he thinks it’s useful to conduct some kind of multilateral discussions, that’s all right. Of course, Israel has always been reluctant to have any kind of solution that would be seen as being imposed by a multinational body.

Ten years ago, the first President Bush got a peace process started by them, the Madrid Conference. I think some in the Administration would be willing to envision a successor to that. I think it really all depends on how much progress Secretary Powell feels he can make in negotiations between the parties themselves, between Israelis and Palestinians, and to see if there might be progress that could be further gained from an international group.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And can you give us any idea of what specifically he wants to talk with Crown Prince Abdullah about? I think he’s just about to meet with him or is meeting as we speak.

TODD PURDUM: Yes, I think he may be meeting, as we speak. He hopes to talk with him to flush out further details about the crown prince’s vision for peace of Arab states with Israel. This was unanimously endorsed by the Arab League summit the other day. It basically calls for Israel to withdraw from lands it occupied after the 1967 war in exchange for normal recognition, diplomatic relations with its neighbors, and peace in the region.There are many problems with this because it involves at the moment some conditions that Israel is not willing to accept, but Americans and Europeans and others around the world have seen it as a very hopeful note in being able to possibly move the process forward, so I think Secretary Powell wants to talk about that with the Crown Prince.

My suspicion is he also wants to talk with him rather candidly about what America feels the Saudis and other Arab states need to do to put pressure on Arafat, to put pressure on the Palestinian violence, and get that stopped so that the peace process can move forward. Crown Prince Abdullah and other Arab leaders are facing significant domestic pressures and discord within their own countries of unrest, and irritation prompted by the Palestinian conflict, and they are looking for help from America in that regard.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Todd Purdum, thanks for being with us.

TODD PURDUM: Thanks for asking.