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Middle East: Powell To Push Peace With Sharon, Arafat

  • Jeffrey Donovan

U.S. President George W. Bush's bid to seek peace in the Middle East risks being derailed by Israeli and Palestinian defiance, despite a joint statement yesterday by the international powers calling for an end to the violence. Both sides ignored their cal l, casting a shadow over Secretary of State Colin Powell's mission to the region.

Washington, 11 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell arrives in Israel today on a peace mission jeopardized by continued Israeli defiance of U.S. cal l s to end a military offensive in the West Bank and Palestinian suicide bombers still claiming Israeli lives.

Powell is due to arrive in Israel late today after stops in moderate Arab countries and Europe where his mission won the support of key interna ti onal players.

In Madrid yesterday, representatives of the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia joined Powell in signing a joint statement that urged Israel to end its 12-day military drive by withdrawing from the West Bank and Palestinian le ade r Yasser Arafat to do everything he can to stop attacks on Israeli civilians.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan read from the communiqu?t a news conference in Madrid: "We call on Israel to halt immediately its military operations. We call for an immediate, meaningful cease-fire and an immediate Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian cities, including Ramallah, specifically including Chairman Arafat's headquarters."

Annan then read out the demands on the Palestinian leader: "We call on Chairman Arafat, as the recognized, elected leader of the Palestinian people, to undertake immediately the maximum possible effort to stop terror attacks against innocent Israelis. We call on the Palestinian Authority to act decisively and take all possible steps within its capacity to dismantle terrorist infrastructure."

Still, despite Powell's scheduled arrival today and the prestige of the statement's signatories, neither Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon nor Arafat heeded the demands -- apparently dealing a blow t o Pr esident George W. Bush's bid to seek peace by sending Powell to the region.

A defiant Sharon said yesterday that Israel must complete its massive military sweep through West Bank cities, calling the operation aimed at rooting out Palestinian suicide bom bers and their infrastructure a question of Israel's survival.

Meanwhile, Arafat has failed to embrace a U.S. call to publicly condemn suicide bombings. And yesterday, a Palestinian blew himself up on a bus in northern Israel, killing eight people in the first major suicide bombing in more than a week.

Backed by Syria and Iran, Hizbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon have also fired scores of rockets at Israeli targets, prompting a reported phone call by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney to Syrian Presid ent Basher Assad warning that the attacks could open up a "second front" in the Middle East conflict.

Israel has also warned of "serious consequences" if Hizbollah's attacks continue.

Despite the mounting setbacks, Powell says his mission to end the vio lence and start talks aimed at a political settlement has not been hijacked. He says meeting Arafat, who is surrounded by Israeli forces in the West Bank city of Ramallah, will be vital.

He made this observation at a news conference in Madrid: "I believe it is important for me to meet with Chairman Arafat. He is the leader of the Palestinian people, and I think the Palestinian people and the Arab leaders with whom I've met over the last several days believe that he is the partner that Israel wi ll have to deal with at some point. The reality is that no other Palestinian leader, or, for that matter, Arab leader is prepared to engage as a partner until Mr. Arafat has had a chance to express his views to me and to others."

But Washington clearly f aces a dilemma in its handling of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, a fact that analysts say helps explain the seemingly inconsistent policy of the Bush administration, which until recently had not sought direct involvement in the crisis.

Since the 11 September terrorist attacks on America, Bush has said he will not tolerate states that sponsor terrorism. As Arafat's Palestinian Authority appeared to fit that definition, analysts say this put Bush in an unbalanced position with regard to the Middle East conflict.

"I believe it is important for me to meet with Chairman Arafat. He is the leader of the Palestinian people, and I think the Palestinian people and the Arab leaders with whom I've met over the last several days believe that he is the partner tha t Israel will have to deal with at some point. The reality is that no other Palestinian leader, or, for that matter, Arab leader is prepared to engage as a partner until Mr. Arafat has had a chance to express his views to me and to others."

For months, the White House has singled out Arafat for not stopping the suicide attacks and Cheney refused to meet with the Palestinian leader when he was in the region late last month unless he met several demands, including stopping the bombings.

But all that has apparent ly changed. As the violence escalated and Israel launched its major offensive on 29 March, Bush announced he was sending Powell in a bid to build peace. And Powell, believed to be the Bush administration's leading voice for a balanced approach t o the conflict, has made it clear he will do what Cheney refused to do -- that is, meet with Arafat.

Powell is expected to discuss with Arafat the administration's vision of a political settlement to the conflict, including the formation of a Palestinian state.

But Israel, a key ally that receives some $3 billion a year in U.S. assistance, continues to urge the U.S. to cease diplomatic dealings with Arafat and help promote a new group of Palestinian leaders.

Yesterday, Sharon said his military campaign has paid dividends but must continue as "thousands of terrorists" remain at large "with a tremendous quantity of weapons and explosives." He said he hoped Israel's "great friend the United States" realized the fight was for Israel's very survival.

Form er Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went further in an address to a group of U.S. senators yesterday.

Netanyahu urged Washington to back Israel's military operation, saying it was a key part of the U.S.-led war on terrorism. Netanyahu said if Isr ael is not allowed to defeat what he called Palestinian terrorism, then suicide bombings would one day spread to the United States and other Western countries.

"My nation [Israel] is being asked to stop fighting. Though we are assured by our friends that we have the right to defend ourselves, we are effectively asked to suspend, not to exercise that right, but our friends should have no illusions -- with or without international support, the government of Israel must fight not only to defend its people a nd to res tore a dangerously eroded deterrence to secure the Jewish state, but also to insure that the free world wins the war against terror in this pivotal arena in the heart of the Middle East."

Netanyahu added that Israel's military objectives should be threef old: to dismantle Arafat's administration and expel him, to clean out terrorists and their weaponry, and to build physical barriers separating Israel from Palestinian areas.

Faced with continued Palestinian suicide bombings and emboldened Isr aeli milita ry resolve, analysts say Powell's task in Israel appears jeopardized from the start -- even if yesterday's international diplomatic coordination on the crisis appeared to be an important step forward.

They say further strong international efforts will be needed in the future if Powell cannot get Arafat to halt the bombings -- a likelihood that would leave Sharon to seek his own solutions.

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