Person of the Week: Colin Powell

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BROOKS KRAFT/GAMMA FOR TIME

Colin Powell

Since his Mideast mediation mission was announced a week ago, the region has waited for Colin Powell's arrival in Israel. Waited impatiently as the Secretary of State's meandering journey took him to Morocco, Egypt, Spain and Jordan before arriving in Jerusalem on Thursday. "Don't you think it was more important to go to Jerusalem first?" Morocco's King Mohammed VI said in an unusual public rebuke during Powell's first stop. Many commentators, both Arab and Israeli, saw in Powell's tarrying a deliberate strategy by the Bush administration to give Ariel Sharon more time to finish his offensive against Palestinian militants in the West Bank. Perhaps. Sharon's apparent indifference to the administration's calls for immediate withdrawal suggest the Israeli leader read Powell's circuitous itinerary as evidence of a tacit understanding by Washington of his objectives. And the Israeli leader believes, rightly or wrongly, that he has senior allies in the Bush administration willing to back his all-out assault on Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

[an error occurred while processing this directive] But Powell's slow journey to Jerusalem may have helped him, in part, by cooling expectations of what he will be able to achieve. The Secretary of State is the envoy of a U.S. administration whose Middle East policy is in flux. For the first time, perhaps, he has the freedom to speak frankly about the limitations of Sharon's military offensive in solving Israel's terrorism problem. "However long the Israeli incursion continues?there will still be people willing to resort to violence and suicide bombings," Powell warned Thursday. "The violence and anger and frustration which feeds that will still be there unless we find a negotiating process." His point was underscored, Friday, by the second suicide bombing inside Israel in a week, this time killing six people in Jerusalem.

Powell may have known all along that military solutions would fail, but for months his voice had been drowned out by those of Bush administration hawks inclined to see in Sharon military solutions an echo of their own war on terrorism. But the tacit endorsement of Sharon's security policy backfired last week, when violence spiraled dangerously out of control and threatened U.S. interests throughout the region. It quickly became clear, also, that Sharon viewed the Palestinian Authority itself as part of the "infrastructure of terror" that he planned to destroy, which would leave behind no Palestinian security arm capable of policing a cease-fire and therefore result in de facto Israeli reoccupation of the West Bank towns — an eventuality for which the Bush administration would have paid a heavy, and long-term diplomatic price. And so, a week ago, President Bush found himself forced to change course. He urged the Palestinians, once again, to end terrorism but this time he also urged Israel to end its incursions and also to move toward a long-term political solution that ended its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and created a Palestinian state.

Powell may have advocated the new approach all along, but along with vindication came a huge and perilous challenge for the Secretary of State. His President needs him to calm the fray. The Palestinians have shown no inclination to denounce terrorism and call a truce — Israel's incursion only fueled their militancy, and the diplomatic crisis it created for Israel and the Bush administration appears to work to their advantage. The Israelis insist they'll continue their operation until they've realized their objectives. Sharon believes he can't afford to return to negotiations with Arafat, whom he sees as the key author of Israel's terror nightmare. The Palestinians believe they have no prospects for effectively pursuing their national goals by peaceful means as long as Sharon remains in power. Moreover, the current instruments of U.S. policy on the conflict, a series of carefully sequenced cease-fire steps with the sole objective of getting the Oslo process back on the road, seems a little farfetched to all sides right now.

It would be an understatement, then, to say the Secretary of State has very little to work with. But his calm, forceful demeanor, plain-spoken realism and determination to intervene against the odds suggests that his pessimism of the intellect is combined with a boundless optimism of the will.

And by trying to get both sides focused on the Bush administration's long-term vision of two states living peacefully side by side even as he warns that cease-fire prospects are grim, he may be coaxing all the participants towards the realization that band-aids won't suffice in a crisis that may demand surgical separation.