Powell Soldiers On

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Secretary of State Colin Powell arrives at Beirut airport in Lebanon

Having an exit strategy has always been a key element of the Powell Doctrine of U.S. overseas commitment, but for the Secretary of State's Middle East mission something short of a cease-fire will have to do. Powell on Tuesday extended his stay in Israel by 24 hours for new meetings with Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat, but hinted that despite signs of progress, he was unlikely to leave with a truce in hand. On the ground, hostilities threaten to continue — and even a proposed conference involving Israel, the Palestinians and their Arab neighbors may become a new battleground.

Having managed to face down President Bush's demand that he withdraw his forces from West Bank towns "without delay," Sharon said Monday that his forces would leave all but Ramallah and Bethlehem within a week. Still, the overnight reoccupation of Tulkarm Tuesday signaled that Israel will reserve the right to reenter Palestinian areas at will to pursue its campaign against the militants. Arafat, for his part, has so far refused Powell's entreaties to call a cease-fire before Israeli troops leave his domain.

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So, while the Secretary of State has managed to keep the two sides talking to him, if not to each other, the standoff remains volatile. Israel's security services warned late Monday of a new wave of violence following the arrest of West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti. As the key political leader of the fighters linked with Arafat's own organization who have carried out the lion's share of attacks on Israelis since late last year, Barghouti — sometimes named as a potential successor to Arafat — was captured Monday near Ramallah, and will be put on trial in Israel. Israel is expecting a deadly Palestinian response, and new attacks would likely prompt new Israeli incursions and further deterioration of the regional security situation.

Powell has tried to renew the focus on the endpoint of a Palestinian state living peacefully alongside Israel. In response to U.S. pressure to create a "political horizon," Sharon proposed a regional peace conference with moderate Arab regimes and Palestinian representatives — although he expressly ruled out the possibility of Arafat participating. But leaders of the moderate Arab states insist that Arafat remains the only point man for any dialogue over the future of the Palestinians. Even Sharon's cabinet colleague Ephraim Sneh said Monday it would be "an illusion to think that other participants would come" if Arafat were excluded.

Powell's solution: Hold the conference at ministerial rather than head-of-state level conference, which would allow Arafat to appoint a senior representative. But there was considerable skepticism both in Israel and the Arab over a proposal many saw as a ploy by Sharon to buy time by throwing the Americans a diplomatic lifeline.

Still, although Israelis, Palestinians and the U.S. may have agreed to the principle of a regional conference, they have fiercely different ideas of its purpose, agenda and guest list. Arafat has said Palestinians would participate only if Israeli troops are withdrawn. Arab leaders have made it clear to Powell that they have little patience for Sharon's notion of ten years of interim agreements, insisting that resolving the crisis requires an immediate resumption of talks over Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza along the lines envisaged in the Arab League's proposal to recognize Israel once it has withdrawn to its 1967 borders. They see the starting point for such negotiations being the tentative agreement designed at Taba in January 2001, in Israeli-Palestinian talks called off two weeks before Sharon's election. But while Sharon has never revealed his own vision of the borders of a future Palestinian state, he has made abundantly clear that it involves nothing close to what was contemplated at Taba or even at Camp David.

Sharon, like Arafat and Powell, faces considerable domestic political pressure over renewed peace efforts. While his government is broadly united on security matters, it is deeply divided over the political future of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Proposing new regional talks potentially eases some of the pressure, deferring some of Sharon's tougher choices. Arafat, of course, will have a hard time selling the principle of a cease-fire to a Palestinian population made even more antagonistic toward Israel after the events of recent weeks — and even if he finds the political will to do so, it's no longer clear that his battered security structures still afford him the means of enforcing it. For Powell, the difficulties aren't only with Arafat and Sharon. The secretary also has to contend with administration hawks inclined to give Sharon free rein to expel Arafat. Monday's mass demonstration in Washington in support of Israel drew politicians from across the spectrum, including the administration. It was an ample illustration of the point made by a British commentator at the weekend that part of the Secretary of State's problem mediating a truce is that Sharon may right now be more powerful than Powell in Washington.