Powell's Powerful Words

If words, more than bullets, could end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, then Monday's speech by Secretary of State Colin Powell was well armed.

Some particular words were a historic first for such a top US official. Mr. Powell accused Israel of maintaining an "occupation" of the West Bank, while at the same time he described Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians as "terror." He asked Israel to accept a "viable" Palestinian state, while asking Palestinians to accept Israel as a "Jewish state" that shouldn't be forced to accept Palestinian refugees.

Such verbal realism and diplomatic balance have put both sides on notice that they will be held accountable for their actions, fairly but forcefully.

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The timing of his speech also carried unusual weight, for two reasons:

1. The Bush team has waited nine months before becoming fully engaged in this conflict, after first taking a laissez-faire, let-them-fight approach. Now, Mr. Powell cannot take this task of seeking peace lightly.

2. Waiting more than two months after Sept. 11 to launch this Middle East initiative provides some cover for the impression that the US may be knuckling under to Osama bin Laden's latter-day support of the Palestinian cause. Still, the wait does take advantage of stronger American opinion, especially among American Jews, that this conflict must be solved soon to ease other tensions in the Middle East that breed terrorism.

Powell, an ex-general, sees the task like a war: He has stationed a retired Marine Corps general, Anthony Zinni (who used to command US forces in the Middle East), permanently in the region to first secure a cease-fire.

Posting such a prominent American to the job of pointing out how each side is behaving badly every day will help shame them into avoiding eye-for-an-eye violence. At the same, another US envoy, William Burns, will try to revive talks on political matters.

Powell's speech failed to confront Israel's demand that violence cease for seven days before talks resume. Such a demand assumes Yasser Arafat is in full control. Powell instead asks for "100 percent effort" by Arafat.

Words make a big difference in this conflict, especially when spoken in American English.

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