Powell exits; next steps are elusive

Powell wrapped up a 10-day visit to the Mideast yesterday

It took US Secretary of State Colin Powell's airplane no more than five minutes to fly over Israel and the Palestinian territories on its way back to Washington yesterday. The mood on board was undoubtedly downbeat. Ten days after beginning his mission in this small strip of embattled land, Mr. Powell departed basically empty-handed.

Powell's mission was to stop the escalation of violence and bring the parties back to negotiations. President George Bush said he wanted a withdrawal of the Israeli military from the West Bank towns it invaded 20 days ago, and a firm commitment from Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to stop the suicide bombings that have been plaguing Israel's towns in recent months. But it didn't happen.

With officials close to Mr. Sharon and Mr. Arafat publicly blaming the other side for the mission's failure, there are some observers who tempered their reactions and looked for a glimmer of hope.

"The trip was a failure in the sense that Powell's specific objective – of getting a cease-fire – was not reached. But a step was nonetheless taken here on which future progress can be built," says Ghassan Khatib, director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center. "Powell touched reality here. He now knows more. He has a better understanding of the specific problems and can now better engage in resolving them. He needed this lesson," Mr. Khatib says. "All is not lost."

Meanwhile, regional support for US efforts to resolve the crisis look as if they may also have suffered a setback. Early suggestions by Sharon, echoed by Powell, that it might be possible to convene a regional peace conference without the presence of Arafat were immediately rejected by the Arab states.

Even after this precondition was apparently dropped, little enthusiasm was heard in the neighborhood for such a conference. In an interview with Israeli TV, Sharon declared that Israel cannot withdraw to the 1967 borders, would not allow the return of Palestinian refugees, and would not discuss dividing Jerusalem. "So what exactly would we discuss?" asked Saeb Erekat, senior negotiator for the Palestinians. "What would be the point?"

A cold visit to Egypt

Moreover, a meeting that was to take place yesterday between Powell and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was cancelled at the last moment. While Powell said the cancellation had no great significance, Egyptian presidential sources told The Associated Press that the decision was made after it emerged that Powell's talks with Arafat earlier in the day were a "catastrophe."

At a press conference before leaving Israel, Powell tried to point to some achievements, saying he believed a commitment from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to withdraw troops from the occupied territories "within days" which in turn, he argued, would promote more diplomatic efforts. Powell mentioned a possible regional conference to discuss the peace process and stressed that the US would remain engaged. CIA Director George Tenet, US mediator Anthony Zinni, and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns would be traveling to the region in coming days, said Powell. Powell himself is expected to return to the region within a month's time.

'Words count for nothing'

Both Israeli and Palestinian officials seemed unimpressed with this list of "successes," presenting the same arguments and accusations they had been advancing last week, before the Powell visit.

"The situation is very grave, very deteriorated," Mr. Erekat told journalists. "There are millions of people here with nothing left to lose. If the situation is left the way it is I would say: 'God help the Palestinians and Israelis.' We had hoped Powell would achieve an immediate withdrawal, and this did not happen. We can do nothing before this happens. This is very dangerous."

Danny Ayalon, Sharon's foreign policy adviser, in turn repeated his government's line: Israel would not withdraw its forces from the West Bank until they had destroyed all the "infrastructure of terror" there, and until Arafat had made "concrete moves" to prove he was serious about fighting terrorism. "We have had it with Arafat's threats and promises and we do not trust his words," said Ayalon. "These count for nothing in the Middle East. We will wait to see action on his part."

While the arguments remained static, events were taking place which, arguably, make the region more volatile than it was at Powell's arrival. In Bethlehem, where some 200 Palestinian gunmen are taking shelter in the Church of the Nativity, heavy gunfire was heard on Tuesday evening, with flares and gray smoke visible over the compound.

In Ramallah, Arafat is holed up in his compound. There, too, tensions are rising as he refuses to hand over five men accused by Israel of involvement in the assassination last year of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi – and Sharon in turn refuses to allow Arafat to leave the offices. "How can this be accepted by the world?" Arafat asked journalists. "Do you think this will not reflect on the peace in the Middle East?"

Finally, the arrest Monday of Marwan Barghouti, a top official in Arafat's Fatah movement– who Israelis claim now heads the militant al-Aqsa Brigades – has stirred deep emotions. Sharon has said he intends to put Barghouti on trial for mass murder. The Islamic militant group Hamas then warned that Israel would pay a high price for the arrest, and that Sharon himself was now a legitimate target for assassination. Following this and other warnings of possible reprisal attacks on Israel, troops entered three Arab suburbs of Jerusalem over the past two days.

And so, with little to show for all his efforts but armed perhaps with this better understanding, Powell left the region for the time being. When flying to the Middle East 10 days ago, the secretary of state told the traveling press that he did not like "wallowing with pessimists." It is yet unclear what he said on his way out.

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