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Middle East: Powell Hopes To Salvage Peace Process

The increasing violence between Israel and the Palestinians has prompted U.S. President George W. Bush to send his top diplomat, Secretary of State Colin Powell, to the Middle East in an effort to revive the peace process.

Washington, 8 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is on his way to the Middle East in hopes of salvaging the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Middle East peace process collapsed completely on 27 March, when a Palestinian suicide bomber struck at an Israeli hotel, killing more than two dozen Israeli civilians celebrating Passover.

Since then, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has sent Israeli forces deep into Palestinian lands. He said his troops would do what Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, had not been able -- or willing -- to do: eliminate Palestinian militants Sharon blames for 19 months of terrorism.

As the fighting escalated, Bush came under increasing pressure to become more involved in the process. The American president had taken a more passive approach to the Middle East than some of his predecessors. Some critics said this contributed to the inability of Israelis and Palestinians to communicate with each other without resorting to violence.

Throughout much of 2001 -- the first year of his administration -- Bush publicly limited himself to statements calling on both sides to show restraint. More recently, he seemed to side exclusively with Israel, saying it had a right to defend itself. Occasionally, he would issue criticisms of Sharon.

On 4 April, Bush made a speech at the White House in which he repeated his criticisms of Arafat, saying he has not done enough to dissuade young Palestinians from carrying out suicide bombings. Bush also urged the Israeli government to begin withdrawing its forces from Palestinian lands and to treat average Palestinians with greater respect because they have no role in the terror attacks.

It was at the end of the 4 April address that Bush announced he was sending Powell to the region in an effort to give new impetus to the peace process. Powell, who left Washington last night, is expected to visit Morocco, Egypt, Spain, and Jordan to consult with various Arab and European leaders before arriving in Jerusalem on 11 April.

Since Bush's speech, however, Israeli forces have continued their operations in the occupied territories. Bush was asked if Israel was ignoring his advice during a news conference he held on 6 April with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was visiting Bush's ranch in Texas.

"I don't expect them (Israelis) to ignore. I expect them to heed the call, heed the call from their friends the United States, and heed the call from their friends the people of Great Britain, the leadership of Great Britain."

Yesterday (Sunday), Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, reinforced Bush's words. During an interview on American television (ABC), she was asked about reports that some in Israel believe the withdrawal need not begin before Powell arrives in Jerusalem.

Rice responded that Bush was clear from the start that the withdrawal should start now. And she said Bush was emphatic about this when he spoke by telephone on 6 March with Sharon.

"The president (Bush) said he expects withdrawal without delay. Now, everyone understands that this has been a big military mobilization, and everybody understands that there can't be a chaotic withdrawal. That's now what is being asked here. But the Israelis need to begin this process because the very foundations for peace in the long term are at stake here."

Rice and Powell also kept up their criticism of Arafat. During another interview program on American television (NBC) yesterday, Powell addressed the criticism that it is unfair for the U.S. to expect Arafat to act against those responsible for terrorist attacks when Israeli forces have him hemmed in at his headquarters in Ramallah.

"He could have done a lot more when he had unfettered access to his security forces, unfettered access to Arab radio and television, and he didn't do enough then. And even in the confined circumstances in which he finds himself, he presents himself as the leader of the Palestinian people -- the Palestinian people look to him. He has ways of getting the message out."

Powell says he hopes to meet with Arafat "if circumstances permit."

Both Powell and Rice also defended the Bush administration's Middle East policy. Powell appeared to shift some of the blame for the crisis to Israel's Arab neighbors. He said he will be speaking with some Arab leaders in North Africa and the Middle East before he arrives in Israel in an effort to get them to take what he called "more responsible action" to curb Palestinian violence.

Rice, too, defended Bush's policy in the region, saying his administration has a highly experienced foreign affairs team, that Bush's war against terrorism has been "brilliant," and that he has scored many other foreign policy successes.

Like Powell, Rice stressed the responsibility of Arab nations to help calm the crisis.

"I have to underscore: Secretary Powell cannot do this alone. And if there is not progress in moving forward, it will not be because Secretary Powell failed. It will be because the parties responsible did not step up and do what they need to do. We need the help of the parties in the region. This is not a U.S.-only show."

Overshadowed, but not forgotten, in the midst of the Middle East crisis is Iraq and how Washington intends to deal with its president, Saddam Hussein. Saddam was to have been the focus of the meetings between Bush and Blair in Texas over the weekend. Instead, the two men said they spent much of their time exploring ways to resume meaningful peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Still, the subject of Iraq was not entirely swept away. During the 6 April news conference, Bush said he told Blair that the policy of his administration is "the removal of Saddam." Blair then said:

"How we approach this -- this is a matter for discussion. This is a matter for considering all the options. But a situation where he continues to be in breach of all the United Nations resolutions, refusing to allow us to assess, as the international community have demanded, whether and how he is developing these weapons of mass destruction -- doing nothing in those circumstances is not an option."

During yesterday's television interview, Powell stressed that the U.S. is not yet planning any military operations against Iraq. He said Washington and its allies have a wide range of options on how to deal with Saddam. He acknowledged that the violence between Israel and the Palestinians is complicating the thinking about Iraq, but he said the Middle East conflict presents no concrete problems for the Iraq question because there is now no concrete plan for Iraq.

Powell also was asked about a resolution passed unanimously at last weekend's Arab League meeting in Beirut that said the league opposes any military attack on any Arab state, particularly Iraq. The questioner noted that the resolution was supported even by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, whom the U.S. and its coalition partners protected against Iraq during the Gulf War a decade ago.

Powell replied that he is not concerned about the wording of the resolution, or about who may or may not have voted for it. Ultimately, he said, no one in the region is likely to "shed many tears," as he put it, if Iraq suddenly had a change in leadership.