Parsing Powell on the Middle East

So, where are things headed in the turbulent Middle East? That is a question I am asked most often.

Those septuagenarians, Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat – prisoners of their past, hating each other, locked in mortal combat – will probably never be able to reach a settlement beyond some temporary cease-fire.

President Bush, sending Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Middle East, sounded as though he had virtually given up on Mr. Arafat, whom he accused of missing his opportunities and betraying the hopes of his people. "I expect better leadership, and I expect results," the president said.

One option is to wait for the baton to be passed to the next generation. But Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian young guard are, if anything, more hawkish than their elders, ready to match their tanks and their suicide bombers in a fight to the finish.

So, if there is to be peace, it may have to be imposed from the outside by some innovative international arrangement backed by a multilateral military force. And that seems to be what Secretary Powell may soon be exploring.

Powell, who chooses his words carefully, said in a television interview the other day that he wanted to negotiate a Palestinian state. He added, "I don't know if it's the final state or an interim state."

Interim state? What's that? Well, Palestine was an interim state once – when that piece of the vanquished Ottoman Empire was placed under a League of Nations mandate after World War I with Britain as the mandatory power, represented by a high commissioner. It was a rocky time, with periodic anti-Jewish riots by Arabs and Jewish acts of resistance against the British. But eventually, in 1948, there emerged an Arab state, called Trans-Jordan, now Jordan, and a Jewish state called Israel.

After World War II, the mandate idea was revived in the United Nations as "trusteeship," a way of preparing former colonies for independence.

Now you begin hearing the word "mandate" being tossed around again. Middle East scholar Stephen P. Cohen of the Israel Policy Forum proposes "a new UN mandate" for US and NATO troops to supervise the gradual emergence of a Palestinian state.

In Foreign Policy magazine, British political scientist Robert Skidelsky says the occupied territories should be declared a mandate under NATO-UN occupation with maybe a Marshall Plan thrown in as a sweetener for the Palestinians.

As to an international force, Powell says the United States will not send troops unless they are acceptable to both sides. There are memories of how the British got caught in the cross-fire as the last mandatory power.

So far, a mandate is just an idea, but Powell has something in mind when he speaks of "an interim state."

• Daniel Schorr is a senior analyst at National Public Radio.

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