Powell goes solo against big odds

Secretary of state in daunting quest for Mideast truce

`It's a defining moment'

Politically delicate decisions could test Bush support

April 06, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - When he flies to the Middle East next week, Colin L. Powell will face his most formidable mission yet, one that will require him to summon every last reserve of his diplomatic agility and personal charm.

The task of halting 18 months of fighting between Israelis and Palestinians will put to the test Powell's enormous public stature, which many once thought could propel him to the presidency.

It will also measure his resolve, as well as Powell's ability to keep President Bush fully behind him as he makes politically delicate decisions.

And it will go a long way toward defining his tenure as Bush's secretary of state.

Since becoming America's top diplomat, Powell has seldom had the global spotlight on him alone or assumed a role that will shape how history will view him.

During the first seven months of the war on terrorism, most world attention focused on Bush or on Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Until now. Powell's trip to the Middle East is largely a solo mission, one that will be subject to criticism whatever he does or does not do.

"It certainly is going to be watched with great scrutiny," a senior State Department official said.

"It's a defining moment."

Few secretaries of state have triumphed in the Middle East. Henry A. Kissinger brokered lasting truces between Israel and its Arab foes after the 1973 war. Cyrus R. Vance negotiated the Israeli-Egyptian Camp David accords in 1979. And James A. Baker III arranged the Madrid peace conference in 1991.

More often, secretaries have been drawn into prolonged and tiring spasms of shuttle diplomacy that distract their attention from other pressing problems and that yield little.

So intractable is the 50-year conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that few are likely to assign all the blame to Powell personally if he fails.

But the risks of failure for the United States and its interests in the region are daunting.

Israel, a country with which the United States has a unique attachment, could sink deeper into a cycle of bloodshed and terror.

The resulting instability could spread elsewhere in the heavily armed region, weakening America's Arab allies and sending shock waves through oil markets.

Powell enjoys public approval ratings of more than 80 percent, having retained much of the glamour that surrounded him as the successful chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Persian Gulf war of 1991.

He also remains one of Washington's most able public communicators.

But his record as secretary has been mixed. During the first eight months of the Bush presidency, he appeared to lose as many internal policy battles as he won.

He also absorbed much of the heat for the widespread view around the world that Bush was cultivating a "unilateralist" go-it-alone foreign policy.

Powell did achieve success for a period after the Sept. 11 attacks. He pulled much of the Muslim and Arab world into a coalition to fight terrorism, and he won at least tacit support from most countries in the region for the war to topple the Taliban and root out al-Qaida terrorists in Afghanistan.

The Middle East, however, has remained a source of unending frustration.

"It has been the most arduous issue of the last 14 months for him," a top Powell aide said yesterday.

His first two trips to the region did little to subdue the violence that was already raging when the Bush administration began.

Visiting the Middle East in June, Powell backpedaled on a U.S. offer of outside monitors sought by Palestinians after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel objected.

By now, hundreds more have died on both sides. Hatred, grief and hopelessness have mounted, and many in the region have lost faith in America's role as an honest broker.

In the wake of a rash of suicide bombings and Israel's aggressive military offensive, the Israelis and Palestinians seem farther apart than ever.

"It's a very tough challenge," said Samuel Lewis, a former ambassador to Israel.

Powell will leave Washington tomorrow.

Stopping first in Madrid and then moving to Arab capitals, Powell will try to enlist European allies, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia in pressing the Palestinians to halt terrorist attacks against Israelis - particularly suicide attacks.

He will also urge them to build on the Arab League's offer to Israel of peace, normal relations and recognition in exchange for territory.

Israel is expected to make at least a partial withdrawal from the West Bank before he arrives.

But Powell could become trapped in detailed negotiations over a complete pullback from all the West Bank cities that Israel recently reoccupied and in trying to persuade the Palestinian Authority to act boldly to halt terror attacks and to crack down on militants.

And Powell's efforts, like those of many before him, could be set back by another devastating attack.

The secretary of state has held out the threat of avoiding Yasser Arafat altogether, as leverage to persuade the Palestinian leader to cooperate.

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