Colin Powell headed back to Washington yesterday after failing to secure either an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank or a Palestinian ceasefire, brandishing only the nebulous idea of a conference to rebuild momentum towards a political settlement.
The Bush administration is now considering its dwindling range of options in the Middle East, following one of the least productive missions to the region by a US secretary of state in modern times.
Ending his 10-day trip, General Powell claimed to have detected "a vision of peace" and said the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, had given him assurances that troops would be pulled out of the West Bank, apart from Ramallah and Bethlehem, within the next few days. But the deadlock remains, with Israel insisting there can be no withdrawal before an end to terror attacks, and the Palestinians the reverse.
General Powell said: "We could have a ceasefire today, but what would it mean? At the moment ceasefire is not a relevant term."
As the Secretary of State headed for Cairo to meet the foreign ministers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan – but not President Hosni Mubarak, who was "indisposed" – George Bush put as brave a face as possible on the meagre results. General Powell had "made progress towards peace", the President said.
But the only perceptible achievement was some easing of tensions along Israel's northern border with Lebanon, where rocket attacks by Syrian-backed Hizbollah guerrillas have temporarily halted.
Mr Bush reiterated that the only long-term solution was "two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in security and peace". But that would require hard choices by Israelis, Palestinians and their Arab neighbours.
He said: "The Palestinian Authority must act on its words of condemnation against terror. Israel must continue its withdrawals and all Arab states must step up to their responsibilities."
Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia had helped in the wider war against terror, "now they must help confront terrorism in the Middle East". And in words about the suicide bombers that will delight Mr Sharon, President Bush insisted: "All parties must say clearly that a murderer is not a martyr – that he or she is just a murderer." The Bush administration also hinted it might suspend future US financial aid to the Palestinians if the terror attacks continued.
But the truth is that the US has rarely been less able to impose its will on events. Not only do the Palestinians remain defiant. Israel continues to ignore Mr Bush's initial demand for an immediate withdrawal, and moderate Arab states still have not condemned Palestinian terror attacks on Israeli civilian targets.
After a second meeting between General Powell and Yasser Arafat at his compound in Ramallah, which Mr Sharon says Israel will continue to blockade until suspected Palestinian terrorists are handed over, the Palestinian leader spoke furiously of his plight. "Is this acceptable, that I can't go outside from this door? Do you not think how this will reflect on stability and peace in the Middle East?"
The next move by the US is unclear. General Powell said he would return to the region, but gave no date. The spadework is being left to Anthony Zinni, the US envoy to the region, and George Tenet, the CIA director.
General Powell said Mr Sharon and Mr Arafat had expressed interest in a conference, but settling on an agenda, a date and a list of participants could generate yet more argument.Reuse content