Powell plays for high stakes on the opening leg of peace mission

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Indy Politics

As Israel continued to defy America and pound Palestinian targets in the West Bank, Colin Powell began his Middle East peace mission – one with stakes as high as Henry Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy of the mid-1970s, and of arguably even greater difficulty.

The meteorological signs were good when the Secretary of State arrived in Agadir, Morocco, yesterday, for the first leg of his trip, during which he held talks with two moderate Arab leaders, King Mohammed VI and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

Greeting General Powell was a torrential downpour. "Powell brought the rain," the Moroccan palace spokesman, Hassan Aourid, said, "It's a good omen. We hope he will also bring peace to the region." In diplomatic, political and military terms, though, the circumstances could not have been less propitious.

Emerging from talks with King Mohammed, General Powell again told Israel to act, with "a clear statement that they are beginning to withdraw" from Palestinian territories and "to do it now". A similar demand was due to be delivered to Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, in person last night by retired general Anthony Zinni, the American envoy whose efforts to broker a ceasefire have been overwhelmed by the latest violence.

The White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said: "This is a serious message from the President; he means what he said and he expects Israel to act." But, so far, Mr Sharon has utterly ignored it, declaring just hours before General Powell spoke that the offensive in the West Bank would end only at a moment of his choosing.

The assumption is still that Israel will accede to pressure from the Bush administration and be winding down or ending its operations by the time the Secretary of State arrives in the country on Thursday. At that point, General Powell would be able to meet Yasser Arafat – something Arab states say is essential if America is to retain any credibility as an honest broker.

Yesterday, however, America found itself in the unfamiliar and embarrassing position of seeing its admonitions ignored by everyone, with Israel refusing to call off its forces, Mr Yasser Arafat failing to order an end to violence by the Palestinians and the Arab states refusing to condemn Palestinian suicide bombings.

Instead, King Mohammed, whose Morocco has always depicted itself as a bridge between Israel and the Arab world, bluntly told General Powell he should be putting more pressure on Mr Sharon. He said: "Don't you think it was more important to go to Jerusalem first?" General Powell's response was that he wanted to go to Spain first to meet European leaders before travelling to Israel itself. But the delay has raised suspicions that Washington is tacitly allowing Mr Sharon an extra 48 hours.

That, in turn, has fuelled wider doubt about just how committed Mr Bush is to Washington's peace-making efforts. Newsweek reported yesterday that hawks in the administration, led by Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defence secretary, wanted to give the Israeli Prime Minister a free hand to "finish the job".