Powell Timetable Puts Pressure on Israelis and Palestinians

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Powell at a joint press conference in Jerusalem

TIME.com: Secretary of State Colin Powell managed to get the Israelis and Palestinians to agree to a timetable — a week of no violence, which will trigger a six-week "cooling-off" period, followed by "confidence-building" measures and more talks. That seems to be open to plenty of sabotage along the way…

Jay Branegan: Yes, the problem is that, like with so many things in this conflict, in order to get the two parties to agree you have to leave so many things vague and undefined that each side walks away with its own understanding of what exactly has been agreed. And that's a recipe for things to come very quickly unstuck. Already it's being debated whether the "confidence building" measures begin during or after the "cooling off" period.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is insisting that before moving to any next step, there has to be absolute calm for seven days, plus the cooling-off period. But it's not unlikely that he's going to be more flexible, because he wants this to work. Sharon needs some way out of the current situation. It's what he promised Israeli voters, and he doesn't want to have to deal with this level of violence. So he may be setting out a negotiating position — he came down from 10 days without violence to seven, after talking with Powell. And at some point, he'll be ready to follow through. I spoke with (Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman) Joe Biden today, and he said, "I'm not worried that Sharon is setting this up for failure. He needs this as much as anyone for himself and for his country."

Still, isn't this insistence on an extended period without violence an invitation to the naysayers to commit outrages? After all, if you're an Islamic Jihad leader, your objective is to stop any resumption of the peace process. And it's very easy to do, because one dramatic terror attack may be enough to derail it. Back in the early years of Oslo, Yitzhak Rabin factored that in by uncoupling terrorism from the future of negotiations. He famously said, "We will pursue peace as if there is no terrorism and fight terrorism as if there is no peace." But it's unlikely that Sharon is thinking this way…

Nobody thinks it is going to be easy to make this work. In the end, it's really a matter of political will, and the biggest problem in making it work is going to be that there is a profound lack of trust between the two sides right now. Still, at some point Sharon will decide he got the best he's going to get from Arafat, and will probably move on with the next step.

What about the controversy over cease-fire monitors. Powell endorsed the Palestinians call for independent monitors to observe the cease-fire, but appeared to backpedal once it became clear that the Israelis were a little alarmed by this…

There was a bit of a stink over what he actually said and how it was reported. It's possible that Powell could have made a verbal slip. On the other hand, at the core of what Powell is saying is common sense — if there's a trust problem between Israelis and Palestinians, there have been some tripartite observation groups involving the CIA, Palestinian Authority and Israelis that have been successful. It's a model that has worked. I think he was looking at a practical solution to a practical problem, of creating independent verification for each side's claims and counterclaims about who is violating the cease-fire.

Although he later tried to distance himself from the endorsing the Palestinian position on this question, and emphasized that monitors would only be sent if both sides agreed to their role, his initial comments came immediately after Arafat told reporters that both sides had agreed to an international monitoring force, and Powell certainly said nothing to differentiate the U.S. position from the Palestinian one.

Isn't the U.S. putting more pressure on Israel now by setting out some of the tougher things the Israelis will have to do, but then saying "do it on your own time frame?"

Yes, I think that's correct. They want to get the Israelis to commit to certain undertakings in principle, and once the commitment is there they'll work out the time frame.

Does an agreement of this type not require the U.S. to play referee? Calling out the American fire brigade to resolve some crisis was Arafat's favorite tactic in the last years of the Clinton administration, and he seemed to be blossoming in Powell's presence Thursday. How long before Powell gets dragged back to the region to put out some new brushfire?

The U.S. is very reluctant to play a refereeing role, and it certainly won't take on any monitoring function without an invitation from both sides. It's unlikely that Powell would run back if things collapse in a couple of weeks. He'd take that as a vindication of his earlier stance against rushing in because there was too little to be gained. He's been very open about the fact that he went this time under a lot of pressure from U.S. allies who've been urging the Bush administration to get more involved. If anything goes wrong, he'll simply tell those allies, "Told you so."