Why Powell's Mission Failed

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Colin met with Sharon at the prime minister's residence on Tuesday

Secretary of State Colin Powell's Middle East peace mission failed to achieve anything substantive not for lack of trying, but because the Bush administration lacks a coherent policy on the conflict. Powell's summary of the situation upon his departure Wednesday was telling in its similarity to what it was when he arrived: There won't be a cease-fire until Israel withdraws its troops from Palestinian cities, but Ariel Sharon plans to do that soon; Yasser Arafat needs to do a lot more to rein in terrorism. Sharon had, in fact, indicated last weekend that his troops would withdraw from most West Bank cities except Ramallah and Bethlehem by the end of this week. But what the Israeli leader means by withdrawal is unlikely to be enough to coax the Palestinians into a truce — Israeli tanks rolled into new Palestinian neighborhoods Tuesday, and repeat raids in Tulkarm the same day show that the IDF has simply redeployed to the edge of the towns from which it has withdrawn, and reserves the right to reenter them at will in pursuit of terror suspects. As Powell noted, under those circumstances, "cease-fire is not a relevant term."

Mixed signals

Powell has been plagued from the outset by the conflicting messages sent by his administration. Sharon chose to hear mostly the administration's message that it understood his actions in terms of Israel's need to defend itself. Emboldened by support from Bush administration hawks for his efforts to take Arafat out of the political equation — and by the mounting domestic political pressure on President Bush to ease up on the Israeli leader and refrain from pressing him to negotiate with his Palestinian counterpart — Sharon told the U.S. he'd withdraw on his own time, and on his own terms.

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Palestinian officials, for their part, chose to hear mostly the Bush administration's demand that Israel withdraw its forces immediately and its support for U.N. resolutions to that effect. And they refused to heed Washington's entreaties for a cease-fire in the absence of Israeli compliance. Palestinian officials on Wednesday angrily chided Washington for caving in to Sharon after demanding more than a week ago to withdraw from Palestinian cities "without delay." And they appealed for Arab support, knowing that it was pressure from Washington's moderate Arab allies that forced the Bush administration to enter the fray in the first place.

Powell had hoped to move the process forward by fixing both parties' eyes on the political horizon, pressing for a quick resumption of negotiations over Palestinian statehood. On that front, Sharon suggested a regional peace conference, possibly to be held in the U.S. in June. And although the Israeli leader was forced to retract his insistence that Arafat be excluded from the guest list, the difference between Palestinians and moderate Arabs on the one hand and Sharon on the other over the shape, or even the desirability, of a final settlement gave little cause for confidence that the conference would serve as a beacon to stop the fighting.

The price of failure

Violence has continued, albeit at a slower tempo, throughout Powell's visit, and there is considerable danger of it intensifying after his departure. That won't do much to rescue Washington's deteriorating image among its allies in the Arab world. And appeals by Palestinian leaders for more forceful Arab support, accompanied by the images of devastation in Palestinian cities beamed around the world now that TV cameras are getting into Nablus and Jenin, could even stoke the fires of Arab rage against Israel and the U.S. in the coming weeks.

Washington may already be feeling the heat of Arab anger over its failed intervention. President Hosni Mubarak on Wednesday called off a meeting with the homeward-bound Secretary of State, citing ill health and sending his foreign minister instead. Mubarak's diplomatic snubs are typically packaged in claims of being otherwise indisposed, although Powell read no negative message into the Egyptian president's begging off. Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is meeting with President Bush Wednesday, and is expected to register Arab disappointment with the administration's peace efforts so far. Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah is expected at the President's ranch in Crawford, Texas next week, and the outcome of that encounter will be a crucial indicator of the state of relations between the U.S. and its moderate Arab allies.

Fearful of the political fallout from a failed Middle East mediation mission, the Bush administration has worked hard over the past week to distance the White House from Powell's mission, not-so-subtly sending out the message that the trip was the Secretary of State's own show. That didn't do much to help Powell press Sharon to end his offensive, which the Secretary of State insists is the crucial component of any cease-fire. But while shifting the onus onto Powell may help President Bush fend off domestic political pressure from a strong, bipartisan consensus in favor of the Israeli offensive, the international political bill for his failure — and any further deterioration of the situation — will be sent not to Foggy Bottom, but to the White House.