Powell gains measured in inches

Secretary of State Colin Powell ends a 10-day foray into the Middle East conflict today, having made some advances toward calming spiraling violence.

If nothing else, his effort at shuttle diplomacy between two entrenched and unyielding antagonists forced discussions on both sides on what must happen for the violence the other side deplores – be it suicide bombing or military incursions – to stop.

Mr. Powell moved each side from talking about what the other side was doing to what it must do, on its own, to promote any prospects for peace.

The secretary can also claim a timely intervention that may have reduced the likelihood of the conflict spinning out of control into a wider regional war.

But long-term progress depends on shifting the region's focus from short-term security measures to a broad vision of how a Palestinian state might coexist with an Israel that feels safe within its borders. And both Powell's gains and overall US commitment are sure to be tested by the actions of extremists on both sides in the days and weeks ahead.

By Tuesday evening Powell, ever the optimist himself, was expressing hope that his final talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat would yield some agreement.

But with Palestinian officials saying no formal ceasefire was possible without full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, and with Israel matching some pullback with a renewed commitment to stay in some areas, prospects for a signed and sealed ceasefire looked doubtful.

Upon leaving Israel today, Powell is set to stop in Cairo to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak – a sign to some observers that the US has not lost sight of the political issues that underlie the conflict and the central role Israel's moderate Arab neighbors must play in addressing those issues.

But questions remain about how committed the US is to pursuing peace in the Mideast, some observers say, and settling doubts over Washington's level of involvement will be a key factor in maintaining whatever momentum Powell has been able to establish.

"The Bush administration needs to take addressing this conflict as a means in and of itself, and make it clear to the world that such a commitment has been made," says Bruce Jentleson, a Middle East expert at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "A ceasefire that provides a one-day media-blip but doesn't last through the weekend is not an answer."

What that means, Mr. Jentleson says, is a commitment that Powell is in this for the long haul – "through high-level shuttle diplomacy. We need to hear him say he'll be back within a month, to keep things going and begin the political process."

What's needed from here

Failure to nail down a formal cease-fire before Powell leaves does not doom peace prospects, Jentleson and others say, but they do see several key elements that must come out of the trip. One is the need for some agreement that keeps the two sides moving toward a cease-fire. Another is establishing a path to move quickly to the political issues of the conflict. Finally, they say, the US must make clear its commitment to stay involved for the duration.

To get the political issues on the table, one idea being discussed is an international peace conference, something Powell has been floating during his visit. While he says a conference is no panacea, the US sees it as a way to get two parties that barely want to hear of each other back talking and negotiating.

"There needs to be something that gets beyond ordered, transitional steps and goes right for what counts ... to achieve peace," says Walter Cutler, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia. "The idea is to get the players back to talking about some of the bigger issues, so they see what's out there for them beyond the violence."

This might include building on the Saudi peace proposal that was adopted by the Arab League just before Israel's 17-day-old incursion into Palestinian territories began. That plan, while short on specifics, does hold out the prospect of normal relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors based on a land-for-peace formula.

"The Saudi plan provides a framework to work from," says Mr. Cutler. "The time is ripe to put some major flesh on those bones."

Not another conference

Not everyone agrees with the idea of an international conference. Some worry it could slow whatever momentum has been achieved at a time when another suicide bombing could derail progress. "Over the last decade, we let the [peace] process become the product," says Jentleson. "But all that really happened was hardening of positions that made peace more difficult to achieve."

But others say something like a conference is necessary because the violence of the past month has left each side focused on its own losses rather than what is out there to gain. "You have to get the Arab states involved and weighing in on Arafat, and one way to do that is starting with a conference," says Bernard Reich, a Middle East expert at George Washington University.

"The idea is to bring in the idea of peace at the front end, in order to reestablish a vision and give some reason for getting through to the end."

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