The Minefield Awaiting Powell

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CHRISTOPHE ENA/AP

Secretary of State Colin Powell after meeting with Moroccan King Mohammed VI

Ariel Sharon has started moving his troops, but not enough to make it any easier for Colin Powell to navigate his Middle East minefield. And what emerges when the dust settles on Israel's "Operation Defensive Wall" may make prospects for a sustainable truce even more remote.

The Israeli prime minister has made clear that even after Powell's arrival on Thursday, Israel would continue its offensive against Palestinian militants in the West Bank — and he urged the U.S. to avoid pressuring Israel into withdrawing before the operation's objectives have been achieved. Wednesday's suicide bombing in Haifa emboldened Sharon's defiance of Bush administration calls for immediate withdrawal, but Secretary Powell warned on Thursday that terror attacks would continue no matter how long Israel's offensive continued, and that what was required to end violence was a comprehensive political solution. Israel has moved its troops out of a number of West Bank towns and villages in response to pressure from the Bush administration, but it has pressed forward in others.

Sharon appears to have calculated that Powell's mission is simply a U.S. response to Arab pressure, and that the Bush administration would show tacit understanding for Israel pursuing the campaign to its conclusion. And just in case such understanding was not quite forthcoming, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's appeared on Capitol Hill Wednesday to share with U.S. senators his concerns that the Bush administration would dilute its own anti-terrorism agenda if it pressed for Israeli restraint and engaged with Arafat.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Sharon's statements suggest there may be some butting of heads when he meets with Secretary Powell on Friday. The extent of Israeli withdrawals thus far have not yet satisfied U.S. expectations. Moreover, Sharon has indicated that Israeli forces will withdraw only as far as self-declared "buffer zones" around Palestinian towns — a position rejected by the Palestinians who insist on full withdrawal as a precondition for any cease-fire. Then there's the matter of Arafat: Sharon warned this week that he believes Powell's planned meeting with the Palestinian leader is a "tragic mistake," and that he has no intention of seeking any agreements with Arafat himself. Bush administration hawks may share Sharon's loathing of Arafat, but Washington has come to accept that there's no way of bypassing the Palestinian leader in pursuit of a truce.

But when Powell meets Arafat, he's expected to read the Palestinian leader the riot act, warning that diplomatic oblivion awaits if he refuses to publicly denounce terrorism and order a cease-fire. The Bush administration may also be hoping to persuade Arafat to accept a more symbolic role, making the public call for a truce but mandating a group of his subordinates to begin the actual work of negotiating cease-fire and political agreements with the Israelis. The fact that the U.S. is now drawing a close link between a cease-fire and political negotiations over Palestinian statehood may have created more of an incentive for Arafat to embrace a deal, but the bitterness created by the Israeli incursions could restrain him. And like Sharon, he's likely to struggle to avoid making any move that might be construed as a retreat.

Even if Arafat is prepared to call for a cease-fire, however, he may lack the means, now, to enforce one. "Operation Defensive Shield" has systematically targeted Palestinian Authority security structures, and left them badly degraded. And it is on those very structures that a cease-fire agreement would depend for policing Palestinian militants. Not surprisingly, the White House has been working to diminish expectations of Powell's trip achieving a truce.

Besides pressing for a cease-fire, Powell is looking to simultaneously restart the process of political negotiations over Palestinian statehood. He has made clear that he hopes his Friday meeting with Sharon will give him a better sense of the Israeli leader's political vision. But Sharon's government of national unity is based on crisis-management rather a shared political vision, and while it maintains a relative consensus on security matters, it is sharply divided over the political future of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Then again, few in the region are expecting much progress from Powell's mission. The Israelis, many U.S. officials and some Europeans believe no progress is likely while Arafat remains in power. And the Palestinians and Arabs, as well as many European and U.S. officials also believe no progress is likely while Sharon remains in office. The tactical game for both sides in the coming weeks will be about taking the steps necessary to avoid being blamed if Powell fails.