Why peace is hard sell for Powell

Powell met yesterday with Arafat, but failed to produce concrete results.

He came looking for compromise. So far, however, he has found none. US Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived in the region this weekend amid escalating violence – with the stated intention of forcing a cease-fire upon the Israelis and Palestinians. He shuttled between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and spoke about constructive talks, but nonetheless expectations of a real breakthrough here remain low.

Neither Sharon nor Arafat, both of whose popularity at home seems to rise the more defiant they get, have much to gain by showing flexibility. Sharon, who has seen his approval rating almost double since he started the West Bank incursions, says point blank that Arafat is an enemy who has to be replaced before any negotiations can begin; Arafat, in turn, is basking in his newfound image of a besieged hero and receiving more sympathy than he has in long months, and has little incentive to throw this away in return for vague promises from a leader he knows is keen on his demise.

"Powell's main problem," says political commentator Chemi Shalev, "is that he is trying to sell something to two very disinterested buyers. Arafat is riding high on his historical moment and anything Powell has to offer is but small change for him. Sharon, in turn, can barely hide his prayers for a Powell failure, in the hope that this will give him license to get rid of Arafat."

The secretary of state, meanwhile, has domestic concerns of his own which hamper his ability to function forcefully. US President George Bush, who did everything to stay away from active engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for as long as possible, has now plunged into the quicksand – and is clearly in a bind, with his room for maneuvers constrained by conflicting needs.

On the one hand there is the US's historical friendship with and sympathy for Israel, combined with the parallel between Israeli reactions to suicide bombings and the tough tactics the US is taking in Afghanistan. On the other side, there is the importance of not seeming so biased as to risk antagonizing Arab leaders just when they are most needed in the global war on terror.

"The administration is caught in a crossfire between its different needs," says Mark Heller, the principal research associate at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. "This explains their vacillations from one day to the next. They have not determined who to press and how hard to press."

Powell came away empty-handed from his two-and-a-half-hour, one-on-one meeting with Sharon on Friday, with the Israeli leader refusing to give him a timetable for ending the 16-day-old military offensive.

The prime minister, buoyed in his government by three new hardline ministers he appointed last week, reiterated that, despite Bush's demands, he had no intention of stopping the military incursions into the West Bank. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said the operations were likely to continue for another week or 10 days. "Nobody," stressed Sharon in an interview with CBS after the Powell meeting, "will force upon us any decisions or resolutions that might affect our future."

The meeting between Powell and Arafat, in turn, almost did not take place. A few hours after Powell's meeting with Sharon – just as he was heading out of Jerusalem in a helicopter on his way to see the northern border – another suicide bomber struck in a crowded fruit and vegetable market, killing herself and six others and wounding dozens.

Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer had the helicopter circle the market from the air so Powell could better see the carnage below. The meeting with Arafat, which had been scheduled for Saturday, was immediately postponed.

With Israel calling on Powell to cancel the meeting completely and Palestinians and Arab states arguing that if he did not meet with Arafat his whole mission would be deemed unworthy, Powell stalled and the White house pressed for a statement from Arafat.

On Saturday, Arafat put out a written condemnation of the Friday attack. In the statement, which was read in Arabic on Palestinian television, Arafat deplored Israel's military operations in the West Bank as massacres, but also strongly condemned the violent operations directed at Israeli civilians, especially the latest operation in Jerusalem. Furthermore, Arafat called for an implementation of the Tenet plan as well as a return to talks about the Mitchell blueprint for peace.

Israeli government officials rejected Arafat's statement, saying they had heard it all before. "These words are meaningless. We want concrete actions," said Daniel Ayalon, a top Sharon aide. Powell saw it differently – and, satisfied with Arafat's condemnation – agreed to reschedule the meeting.

He set off for the Palestinian leader's besieged compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah late yesterday morning. There, he heard Arafat argue that there could be no call for a cease-fire before Israel withdrew all its troops from the West Bank, a demand Sharon is unlikely to accept.

Stepping out alone after the three-hour meeting, Powell said talks had been useful and constructive and would be continued on a lower level later in the week. Another meeting with Arafat is expected to take place on Tuesday. But many observers think it's all a waste of time.

"Powell's mission here is going to fail," says Ali Jarbawi, a political scientist at Birzeit University. "First the Israeli army has to pull out of our villages. How can he ask the PA to call for a cease-fire before this happens? They are surrounded and besieged. Arafat does not have the force to do anything. If this cannot be understood then what can? There is no hope here."

With Powell's mission in the Middle East just begun, and no date set for his departure, there is still a chance that his back-and-forth diplomacy will bear fruit. So far, however it has not. It will undoubtedly be a long shuttle.

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