The outgoing secretary of state - on his first visit to the region in 18 months - on Monday held landmark talks with top Israeli and Palestinian officials in a US policy break after its long boycott of veteran Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat who died on 11 November.

  

"This is a moment of opportunity as we look forward to the Palestinian election," Powell said, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "Terror must be ended, violence must be ended."

  

After talks in the West Bank with Palestine Liberation Organisation Chairman Mahmud Abbas, Prime Minister Ahmad Quraya and acting president Rawhi Fattuh, Powell said Washington would stand by the Palestinian election to choose a successor for Arafat.

  

"The United States will help by political support, diplomatic support, working with the international community for whatever international support might be required," he said.

 

Peace process

  

Powell, who is to be replaced by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice shortly, is on a bid to revive the moribund Middle East peace process in the wake of Arafat's death and the re-election of US President George Bush.

 

Saib Uraiqat said the US has
promised finance for the poll

"I think we can make a pretty good case that this is the time to assist the Palestinians as they go forward," he added, refusing to give any specifics about US financial aid.

  

However, Palestinian ministers said Washington would stump up much-needed cash.

  

"America said it would give us financial help and urge other countries to help us with this," said Negotiations Minister Saib Uraiqat.

  

Sharon agreement

 

Sharon agreed that Arabs living in occupied East Jerusalem would be allowed to vote in the election on 9 January.

  

"Israel should allow the Arabs of East Jerusalem, as in the past, to vote but the matter will be debated in the appropriate forums and a decision will be taken," said a statement from his office.

 

In the 1996 Palestinian election, residents in East Jerusalem, occupied by Israel since 1967, were allowed to cast their ballots at post offices.

 

Aljazeera chief of bureau in Palestine Walid al-Umari said: "The outgoing US secretary of state is counting his last days in his job. So the visit is not of any significance."

 

Powell's visit was also seen only as a courtesy call, the correspondent said.

 

Positive step

 

Amira Oron, spokesperson for the Israeli foreign ministry, told Aljazeera that the elections were a positive step. "We will consider removing all barricades in the Palestinian territories to enable people to freely participate in the elections," she said.

 

Powell said the US will stand by
the Palestinian elections

"We are also discussing the withdrawal of Israeli military forces from Palestinian cities for the elections," Oron said.

 

Reacting to Powell's visit Mahmud al-Zahhar, a senior Hamas leader, told Aljazeera that its impact could be judged based only on whether the US would apply pressure on Israel to ease the living conditions of the Palestinians.

 

Late on Monday the ruling Fatah party chose former premier Mahmud Abbas as its candidate to replace Yasir Arafat as head of the Palestinian Authority in elections.


Abbas, 69, Arafat's long-time deputy as head of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, has already been named head of the PLO. If elected president of the Palestinian Authority, he would inherit two of Arafat's main titles.


The Fatah Central Committee, the movement's main decision-making body, picked Abbas as its nominee at a meeting in Ram Allah, said Intisar al-Wazir, a member of the body.