'Powell Will Push Israelis, Palestinians to Reopen Talks'

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EMILIE SOMMER/AFP

US Secretary of State Colin Powell

TIME.com: Why is Secretary of State Colin Powell returning to the Middle East when the prospects for the U.S.-brokered truce still look pretty shaky?

Jay Branegan: The U.S. has come under a lot of pressure from its allies in the region — the moderate Arab states — to raise its profile and become more involved in efforts to stop the violence spinning out of control. There are two theories about why Powell is going now: The first is that Washington fears the cease-fire will crumble, and he's being sent in to shore it up. The second view is that even if the cease-fire stabilizes the security situation, unless there's substantial progress from there towards political negotiations, things will deteriorate pretty quickly. And there's concern that if this cease fire breaks down, it may be quite some time before there is another.

The idea seems to be that Powell should put pressure on the parties to maintain the cease-fire, but also to agree on a timetable for implementing the Mitchell Report. If he doesn't do that, his visit could be seen as a squandering of his stature and political capital. If he manages to forge some agreement on a timetable, it would be a small but important victory that would consolidate what the administration has achieved over the past couple of weeks — even more so if they manage to restart some movement towards political negotiations. So Powell's emphasis will be on working out principles of a timetable for implementing the Mitchell Report.

But this is a cease-fire both sides adopted under duress, and primarily for tactical reasons. How does Washington plan to move things forward?

There is a concern in the administration that Sharon's view is that he can simply maintain an extended cease-fire and keep political negotiations to a minimum. The Bush administration doesn't accept that view, and will try to persuade Sharon that it doesn't work — a long-term cease-fire won't be enough to keep a lid on things from the Palestinian side. Without both sides committing themselves to political negotiations, there would be an inevitable resurgence of violence.

It may be a long time before we see political negotiations of the type we saw at Camp David, but the administration believes its essential to get a process going. That's why the next step is so important. Even then, there is major disagreement over what the Mitchell Report requires.

Yes, and Powell is going to be greeted by a barrage of complaints from both sides about how the other is not keeping its end of the deal. That recasts the U.S. in the refereeing role the Bush administration had been trying to avoidů

The Palestinians certainly welcome the more active involvement. They may not be getting a White House visit, but it may be even more important to them to have Powell and the CIA playing that refereeing role. They believe Powell and Tenet will be honest brokers. And obviously accepting the refereeing role gives the U.S. more leverage. But it's a role the administration will approach with caution. The core of the Bush criticism of Clinton was that he squandered his political capital by becoming too intimately involved, and both Powell and the President will be reluctant to be drawn in too directly.

Still, even what they've done so far has already created a brokering role they can't easily walk away from, even though it has no greater chance of success than Clinton didů

They certainly don't claim to have a silver bullet. The U.S. has been sucked back in to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, but it was only a matter of time before that happened. They were trying to be judicious about it, and they may have more realistic expectations about what they can achieve. The caution with which they're proceeding is part of the lesson learned from the Clinton years. Still, at some point they calculated that staying out was more dangerous to U.S. interests throughout the region than going in.