Powell's diplomatic mission appears doomed to fail

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The Independent Online

Even before Colin Powell's nine-day trip to the Middle East ends, it already looks doomed to failure ­ underlining how hard it is proving to halt the violence, let alone restart a genuine process towards a political settlement.

Yesterday the US Secretary of State met the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, again for an hour before a scheduled final session with Yasser Arafat today at the Palestinian leader's compound in Ramallah. This offers a last realistic chance, however slim, of concrete results before General Powell heads for Egypt and then home.

The one idea to emerge from his trip is for a ministerial-level meeting of Israel, the Palestinians, the US and Arab countries that would somehow link progress on the ground with new political moves. But even this is palliative at best.

In a hint of a concession, Mr Sharon told Israeli television it was a "secondary issue" who represented the Palestinians. This may mean that Mr Sharon will drop his refusal to have any further truck with Mr Arafat ­ a refusal that would doom in advance any serious initiative while both men are in power.

But US officials were pessimistic about any breakthrough. Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, yesterday scaled back the goal of the Powell mission to one of merely "lessening the violence". With Israel's military operations continuing and no sign of a Palestinian call for a ceasefire, it is doubtful whether even that has been attained.

"There are additional meetings, additional contacts and we'll let that develop," was all Mr Fleischer would say. "The talks haven't broken down, but it doesn't look good either," another US official said.

Neither side has committed itself to the goals sought by the Bush administration. Mr Sharon has promised no more than a partial pullout over the next week, and yesterday Israeli tanks moved into new parts of east Jerusalem.

For their part, the Palestinians say they won't issue any ceasefire statement until Israel ends its 18-day occupation of Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank. "If Secretary Powell leaves the region while the Israeli occupation is still continuing, that would be a severe dilemma," Saeb Erekat, a senior negotiator for Mr Arafat, said yesterday.

But the White House has decided not to risk even more US credibility with an open-ended stay by General Powell without guaranteed results. Even before he left Washington on 7 April, General Powell warned he might return without a ceasefire in place.

Yesterday, the Secretary of State did claim to be making progress, but the elusive nature of the quest was evident in his next, rather baffling words: "The specific term 'ceasefire' has not quite the same significance as what actually happens, as opposed to a specific term."

General Powell is said to be proposing a summit in the US in June. "We are with any serious and realistic international conference, but not a conference to exchange smiles," said a former Palestinian negotiator, Mohammed Dahlan, who is now the Gaza security chief. "We don't want a conference to cancel 10 years of negotiations but a conference to achieve a solution based on two states: Palestine and Israel."

In the past such contacts, as at the 1991 Madrid conference convened by President Bush's father, have been at summit level. A repeat is impossible because of Mr Sharon's refusal to meet Mr Arafat. But the barring of the latter would be unacceptable to the Palestinians.

The Bush administration has learnt one thing: like it or not, it is involved in the Middle East for the long haul. The White House confirmed last night that Mr Bush will meet Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia at his Texas ranch next week. Top of the agenda will be the Saudi plan for Arab recognition of Israel in return for a full Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied since 1967.

"We are with any serious and realistic international conference, but not a conference to exchange smiles," said a former Palestinian negotiator, Mohammed Dahlan, who is now the Gaza security chief. "We don't want a conference to cancel 10 years of negotiations, but a conference to achieve a solution based on two states: Palestine and Israel."

In the past such contacts, as at the 1991 Madrid conference convened by President Bush's father, have been at summit level. A repeat is impossible because of Mr Sharon's refusal to meet Mr Arafat. But the barring of the latter would be unacceptable to the Palestinians.

The Bush administration has learnt one thing: that like it or not, it is involved in the Middle East for the long haul. The White House confirmed last night that Mr Bush will meet Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia at his Texas ranch next week. Top of the agenda will be the Saudi plan for Arab recognition of Israel in return for a full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories.

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