Try as he might, Powell accomplishes little

April 18, 2002

SECRETARY OF STATE Colin L. Powell leaves the Middle East much as he found it: Israeli tanks have the run of Palestinian cities, most Palestinians remain confined to their homes and leader Yasser Arafat is still holed up in his battered compound on the West Bank.

The cease-fire Mr. Powell hoped to negotiate in the 18-month conflict never materialized, but far fewer suicide bombers have struck inside Israel since the secretary of state left Washington 10 days ago on his peace mission. That can only be attributed to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's refusal to buckle under American pressure to stop his campaign of brute force against a "terrorist infrastructure" in Palestinian cities and refugee camps. Israelis did hear Mr. Arafat publicly condemn terrorist attacks during Mr. Powell's trip, a statement issued in Arabic only after America's top diplomat conditioned a meeting with the Palestinian leader on such a repudiation of violence.

And while Mr. Powell may have listened intently to Palestinian and Israeli grievances, he appears to have had little success convincing Mr. Sharon to relinquish his hold on the Palestinian cities. So much for President Bush's demand that Israel withdraw from the territories "without delay." Either the Bush administration never expected Mr. Sharon to comply or Mr. Powell lacked the president's imprimatur to push it. Either scenario suggests the administration has decided to let Mr. Sharon finish what he started with the hope that the collateral damage will be bearable.

For Palestinians, Mr. Powell's trip has changed little. They remain under siege, their cities in ruin, their dead mounting, their security forces in disarray, their leadership demoralized. There has been no movement on the political issues at the core of their grievances -- an end to Israeli occupation, the creation of an independent Palestinian state, the removal of Jewish settlements, a stake in Jerusalem.

Given the abysmal state of the Palestinian territories, we can't imagine the discussion that will take place between President Bush and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia next week when the latter visits the presidential ranch. The Arab world has solidly backed Palestinian efforts to win their freedom, whatever their means.

Mr. Sharon now says Israeli forces need another two weeks to finish rounding up suspected militants, dismantling bomb factories and confiscating weaponry. However, the tanks will maintain a presence on the outskirts of the cities as a buffer. At home, the prime minister is already reaping the political benefits of standing his ground, but his call for a new peace summit in a location outside of the Middle East is hard to take seriously without any indication of his willingness to compromise on the core issues of a political settlement.

On this trip, Mr. Powell discovered firsthand the difficulties in resolving this decades-old fight. The secretary of state left behind two key aides to assess the ability of Palestinian security forces to fight terror as he demanded. Indeed, the Bush administration says it is committed to bringing peace to the Middle East, but the president and Mr. Powell can't let one side set the agenda or overtake the process. And they have to be ready to act if neither side can get past its immobilizing ideology. Unless, that is, they are prepared to let the fighting and killing go on.

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