As Its Influence Ebbs, Will America Again Be a Target?

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Palestinian women return home to the ruins of Jenin

The Bush administration is doing its best to portray Colin Powell's 10-day mission to the Middle East as a success, but no amount of spin can hide the fact that American influence in the region has reached new lows. Powell failed to secure his two main objectives: a cease-fire from Yasser Arafat and an Israeli withdrawal from recently occupied territory in the West Bank. The prospects for peace dimmed even more after Powell got home. With Arab and European opinion already inflamed by reports of Israeli aggression, Bush added to the outrage by hailing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a "man of peace" and backing away from calls for an immediate Israeli pullout.

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Bush maintains he has not abandoned the peace process. He is considering whether to call for an international peace conference aimed at establishing the terms of a political settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. White House sources say Bush will probably discuss the idea with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, who will visit Crawford, Texas, this week. But Bush's perceived approval of the Israeli military offensive has infuriated Arab leaders. The Saudis say that before agreeing to participate in peace talks, Abdullah will insist that Sharon lift the siege on Arafat, withdraw fully from the newly occupied territories and settle territorial disputes with Syria and Lebanon.

Don't expect a breakthrough. Israeli officials say they plan to hold their positions in Ramallah and Bethlehem until the surrender of Palestinian militants believed to be holed up there. And even after Israeli troops leave, they may go back into West Bank towns to stage "pinpoint operations" against terrorists trying to regroup. But the Israeli offensive may only invite a more savage Palestinian response. Militants belonging to al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades told TIME they are preparing to avenge last week's arrest of top Arafat deputy Marwan Barghouti. And they believe the U.S. should share the pain. "Now," says a senior Brigades leader in the West Bank, "American targets are the same as Israeli targets."