Powell's Long-Term Mission

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Nasser Ishtayeh/AP

As fighting continued in Nablus, Powelll and Arafat agreed to meet

For Colin Powell the setbacks came almost hourly on Friday. First, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made it clear that Israel had no intention of complying with the Bush administration's call for it to withdraw its army from West Bank towns "without delay." Israel would withdraw only when its mission to "uproot terror" had been completed, said Sharon, and he expressed hope that the operation would be finished soon.

The meeting was hardly over when a Palestinian woman blew herself up in downtown Jerusalem, killing six Israelis and wounding scores more in the second terror attack inside Israel in three days. The bombing appears to have swung the fragile balance of the Bush administration's conflicted Middle East policy back in the direction of the hawks skeptical of renewed engagement with Yasser Arafat. Whereas Powell had responded to Wednesday's suicide bombing that killed nine people in Haifa by saying the event underscored the importance of his peace mission, President Bush Friday demanded that Arafat condemn the latest outrage, and Secretary Powell dutifully postponed his scheduled Saturday meeting with the Palestinian leader.

Arafat finally responded Saturday, with a statement in Arabic condemning both the Jerusalem attack and Israeli military responses in the West Bank. That set the stage for a Sunday meeting between Powell and Arafat. Still, Powell will now be approaching the talks with the idea that Arafat must show concrete progress in halting terror attacks.

While the new stance appears to reflect the positions of Bush administration hawks more inclined to adopt Sharon's own hostility to any move to engage with Arafat, it may also save the Secretary of State a high-profile failure. U.S. officials had made clear to Arafat aides that Powell's agenda for would focus primarily on getting Arafat to publicly renounce terrorism and call for a cease-fire, but Palestinian officials have made clear that while Arafat may accept the idea in principle, he'll make no such calls before Israel has withdrawn its forces from all Palestinian Authority territory. So, with the Israelis having told Powell not to hold his breath waiting for an Israeli pull-out, the meeting with Arafat was bound to be another frustrating indicator of how far the Bush administration's influence over events in the Middle East has declined.

Both sides, of course, can refer to the Bush administration's own positions to back their own reluctance to give Powell what he needs. Sharon points to Washington's oft-stated understanding for Israel's need to defend itself; the Palestinians refer to the administration's recent demands on Israel and its support for U.N. resolutions requiring immediate Israeli withdrawal. Sharon expects that support for his offensive on Capitol Hill and from some senior players in the Bush administration will restrain the White House from putting him under significant pressure. Arafat may be betting that the dramatic hardening of moderate Arab opinion against the U.S. caused by the crisis will force Washington to turn the screws on Sharon.

A cease-fire, then, may be a bridge too far. But Powell is attempting to do more on his trip than simply try, where General Anthony Zinni has so far failed, to get the two sides to implement the Tenet cease-fire plan. He is, in his own words, "aggressively" pursuing renewed political negotiations over Palestinian statehood as part of a wider truce effort. During his talks with Sharon, he emphasized that a political settlement is essential to ultimately put an end to Palestinian terrorism.

Sharon is not particularly comfortable with the prospect of renewed political talks, and certainly not with Arafat — despite the fact that moderate Arab and Palestinian leaders across the board have repeatedly stressed that there is no other address for negotiations. Sharon's coalition government is founded on a security consensus, but is deeply divided over the political horizon. His Labor Party coalition partners favor rapid movement towards a final settlement based on the same land-for-peace principles articulated in the Arab League's recent peace offer; Sharon opposes that vision and talks of "interim" agreements with unnamed moderate leaders lasting a decade or more. But Sharon may be swimming against the tide of an emerging international consensus around a two-state solution based on Israel's withdrawal from all or most of the West Bank and Gaza. That's the shared starting point of the tentative agreements reached during Taba talks between Israel and the Palestinians four months after the current intifada began, the relevant U.N. resolutions and the recent Arab League proposal. Even President Bush last Thursday said that "[Israel's] occupation must end through withdrawal to secure and recognized boundaries, consistent with United Nations resolutions 242 and 338."

Powell has purposely worked to diminish expectations that he'll pull a cease-fire out of a hat. But what he has begun to do is reinvigorate discussion over a political settlement, hoping to start a process that clarifies a viable and attractive destination for both sides in order to entice them, once again, to resume their painful journey towards peace.