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Middle East: U.S. Senators Say Powell Mission Must Not Be Second-Guessed

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell apparently made little progress in his meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the damaged headquarters of the Palestinian Authority in the Israeli-occupied territories. Despite earlier criticism that the U.S. ignored developments in the region, leading members of the U.S. Congress say they do not want to interfere with the secretary's Middle East peace mission. They say it is important for Powell to have a free hand in dealing with the crisis.

Washington, 15 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Leading members of the U.S. Senate say they are reluctant to interfere with the efforts President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell are making to restore the Middle East peace process.

Many U.S. observers of all political backgrounds have accused Bush of not being fully engaged in the region until the past few months. They say more emphatic U.S. involvement could have prevented the conflict from escalating as badly as it has.

Some critics also say Bush is guilty of imposing a double standard on Israel. They say that while he pursues terrorists in Afghanistan, he asks Israel not to do the same, even as scores of their own citizens are being killed in terrorist attacks.

Powell is now in the region trying to get all sides -- the Israeli government, the Palestinians, and Arab states -- to do their part to end the violence that has been raging for the past 19 months.

Yesterday, Powell met with Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Authority, at the organization's battle-scarred headquarters in Ramallah, outside Jerusalem. The meeting had been postponed by one day because Arafat did not act immediately to denounce a Palestinian suicide bombing in Israel on 12 April. Arafat issued a statement in Arabic against such bombings on 13 April.

Yesterday's meeting lasted three hours. But Powell evidently made little progress in getting Arafat to agree to an immediate cease-fire. Arafat's aides say there can be no truce until Israeli forces withdraw from Palestinian areas they entered two and a half weeks ago in search of Palestinian militia members and the organizers of the suicide bombings.

After the meeting, Powell himself spoke in only the broadest diplomatic terms about his talks with Arafat: "We just completed a useful and constructive exchange with Chairman Arafat and members of his staff, and we exchanged a variety of ideas and discussed steps on how we can move forward."

Powell met late yesterday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. News reports from Jerusalem say Sharon refused to tell Powell when he might order a full withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Palestinian lands.

Sharon also urged the holding of a Middle East peace conference sponsored by the U.S., although Sharon reportedly does not want Arafat to attend such a conference. Washington says the idea of such a conference is being considered. Arafat, in an interview with U.S. Fox television, said he is prepared to accept the Israeli proposal, but only if the peace conference is backed by Bush.

Powell is in Lebanon and Syria today. Syria is said to be the chief supporter of the Hezbollah forces in southern Lebanon, who have been mounting cross-border rocket attacks on Israel, Lebanon's southern neighbor. There is concern that these attacks could open a major international front in the Middle East fighting.

Powell today warned that attacks on Israel by Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas could lead to violence throughout the region. After holding talks in Beirut with Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, Powell called on regional leaders to stop what he called "aggressive actions" across Israel's border.

Powell also commented today on what he hopes to generally accomplish through his shuttle diplomacy in the region: "I condemn anything that takes the lives of innocent civilians. What I am interested in doing right now, though, is bringing an end to the violence, bringing an end to this conflict, because what we need to do is to get the violence down so we can go forward as quickly as possible to find a political solution, one that will deal with the problem in the territories, that will give us the basis for a comprehensive solution."

Despite the slow pace of Powell's mission, senators from both major American political parties say they are reluctant to interfere with the Bush administration's effort to restore the peace process.

Joseph Biden, an opposition Democrat from Delaware, is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Biden says Powell must be allowed to deal with the issue without partisan criticism. He spoke yesterday during an interview on U.S. television ("Fox News Sunday").

"I don't want to second-guess anything he's (Powell) doing while he's on a mission. I think we should give the mission a shot and let it run its course. And if it produces good results, wonderful. And if it doesn't, figure where to go from here."

A leading member of Biden's committee is Senator Chuck Hagel from Nebraska, a member of Bush's Republican Party. During a separate American television interview yesterday, CBS News's "Face the Nation," he agreed that Powell should be allowed to pursue his mission on his own, and that observers should not be impatient for results.

"It's important to give Secretary Powell and the president a wide range of options here. We have to be careful on Capitol Hill, it seems to me, not to close off too much here. Let them work this through. This is difficult. This is an issue that has bedeviled every president since Harry Truman. No one has been able to get their arms around this. It isn't going to happen in one visit. [It's] probably not going to happen in one month. It's going to take time."

Still, Hagel offered a suggestion that he said could accelerate a cease-fire agreement between the Israeli government and the Palestinians. He said the United States should offer to send its troops, or perhaps NATO troops, to the region to monitor any truce. He said it is time for the West to make a concrete contribution to the peace process.

"The time for nibbling around the edges is over. We are seeing an escalation of a magnitude that we've probably never seen with the kind of unprecedented violence."

Appearing on the same interview program, another U.S. senator, Charles Schumer -- a Democrat from New York -- said he is not certain that a Western monitoring group could be effective. He noted that most cease-fires involve two or more conventional military forces whose movements can be kept under surveillance. Schumer said the current violence involves the Israeli Defense Force on one side and, on the other, militants who infiltrate Israel and blow themselves up, which is difficult to observe.

"I think you'd have to see a very clear plan of what the goal is. The trouble with U.S. troops or monitors, or any monitors, is that these homicide bombers sort of sneak across parts of the border and blow themselves up. It doesn't lend itself to monitoring."

Meanwhile, Biden said that in trying to broker peace, or at least a cease-fire, the U.S. should look carefully, and perhaps critically, at the peace proposal offered nearly two months ago by Saudi Arabia. Under the plan, Israel would give up the lands it took during the 1967 war, and in return, Arab states in the region would normalize relations with Israel.

Biden says the Saudi plan should be approached skeptically because of the recent behavior of the Arab nations themselves.

"You look at the Arab states. They've come through with this plan, the Saudi plan. Let's see if it's real. These are the guys who've been funding, these are the guys who've been giving -- turning a blind eye to the terror. These are the guys [who] have been actually harboring [terrorists] in some cases."

But Biden said he ultimately thinks the Arab states can be trusted to live with the Saudi plan. He says their leaders fear they could be driven from power if the Israeli-Palestinian fighting spreads outside Israel and the occupied territories.

"The Saudi leadership, the Egyptian leadership, the Arab leadership generally have looked over the precipice. Never before have they gotten to this spot. They know damn well if this thing [Israel-Palestinian violence] keeps up the way it is, escalating, their very existence -- which is already illegitimate in terms of democratic governments -- is at stake."

But before the U.S., Israel, the Palestinians, and the Arab states even consider the Saudi peace proposal, they must agree to a cease-fire. Given the slow progress of Powell's peace mission, that alone would appear to be a significant achievement.