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Middle East: Powell Hopes For Last-Ditch Deal Before Leaving

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell looks set to return home today after a 10-day Middle East peace mission without a cease-fire or a pledge by Israel to withdrawal its troops from occupied West Bank cities. Powell is set to hold a final meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat today and will stop in Cairo on his way to Washington. Some still believe a truce can be reached. Others are less optimistic. RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports.

Washington, 17 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell wraps up his peace mission to the Middle East today, hoping to return home with some progress in his embattled bid to broker a cease-fire between Palestinians and Israel.

But judging from the sounds at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity -- the supposed birthplace of Jesus Christ, but the scene of a two-week standoff between Palestinian militants trapped inside and Israeli troops outside -- Powell's peace message remains under heavy fire.

Powell, who held his third and perhaps last meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Tuesday, is due to meet for a second time with Yasser Arafat today in the Palestinian leader's besieged headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

But his mission has been riddled with setbacks, including Sharon's defiance of a call by U.S. President George W. Bush for a quick and complete pullout of his forces from the West Bank and a Palestinian suicide bombing that killed six Israelis on the very day when Powell arrived in Jerusalem last week.

President Bush had called for a withdrawal of Israeli forces who stormed West Bank cities and towns on 29 March after a string of Palestinian suicide bombings, a halt to Palestinian violence, and a cease-fire that would stop the killing that has claimed more than 1,200 Palestinian and 450 Israeli lives in the last 18 months.

By the end of Tuesday, however, Powell appeared to have achieved only partial success, with Sharon saying Israel would pull out of most of the recently occupied cities -- though not Ramallah or Jerusalem -- and Arafat issuing a condemnation of last week's suicide bombing.

Still, the secretary of state told reporters in Jerusalem that he has made progress. "I look forward to seeing the chairman [Arafat] in the morning. I think we are making progress and I look forward to furthering that progress over the next 24 hours. But I don't want to get into specifics as to what I'll be able to achieve and not able to achieve," Powell said.

At the White House on Tuesday, spokesman Ari Fleischer defended Powell's efforts and said Israelis, Palestinians, and Arabs have no choice but to follow the road of peace as outlined by Bush. "What alternative do these three parties have, what choice do these three parties have, other than to follow the roadmap that the president outlined in the Rose Garden?"

However, analysts say Powell has faced a daunting task in trying to broker a cease-fire in the long-standing conflict. Until recently, the Bush administration had avoided direct involvement, but on 3 April Bush announced in a speech at the White House Rose Garden that he was sending Powell to the region.

Ted Galen Carpenter is an analyst at the CATO Institute, a Washington think tank. He said Powell's predicament in the Holy Land was a "mission impossible."

"I think it is the equivalent of the quest for the Holy Grail -- it's about as practical," Carpenter said.

Still, Carpenter believes Powell may be able to get both sides to agree to some kind of cease-fire. The Israelis appear set to wind down most of their West Bank operation, while Arafat needs some breathing room after a siege that has destroyed much of his government's infrastructure and killed scores of Palestinians.

But Carpenter said U.S. prestige appears to have been weakened by the shortcomings of Powell's peace bid. "I think Powell's mission has made all sides annoyed with the United States. The Israelis resent the pressure, and the Arabs feel the United States is either being disingenuous or is ineffectual. So we have the rather unique outcome that everyone is angry at the United States."

But not everyone sees it that way. Michael Dunn is a historian and editor of "The Middle East Journal," a Washington-based publication. Dunn says it's unrealistic to think Powell could have achieved a breakthrough and that his visit may be the start of a long process of "shuttle diplomacy" that will involve the Bush administration even deeper into the Middle East crisis.

"I think [Powell] has had some success in that he did get to meet with Arafat and Arafat did meet a few of his conditions for meeting with him. That, to some extent, also reduced the isolation of Arafat that Israel has imposed. And he did get a statement out of Sharon that they would be out of most of the West Bank within a week, which was the first timetable that Sharon has set, though they are still balking at setting a time on Ramallah and Bethlehem," Dunn said.

Both Dunn and Carpenter believe the Bush administration's sudden engagement in the Middle East has been motivated by its desire to win Arab support for U.S.-led attempt to overthrow the government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who the U.S. believes is developing weapons of mass destruction.

According to media reports, leaders of moderate Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt have refused to back any U.S. plan to take on Saddam unless the U.S. helps quell the Middle East crisis.

Besides Israel, Powell has visited several Arab capitals to sound out their views on the latest Israeli-Palestinian violence and is scheduled for meetings in Cairo with Egyptian officials on his way back to Washington.

Powell is also considering the idea of holding an international conference that could kick-start peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps Morocco are reported as possible participants.

Sharon has said that he would take part in such a conference, but it is unclear whether he would agree to attend if Arafat were also there. Sharon says Arafat is no longer fit to be a negotiating partner with Israel.

Meanwhile, the White House announced on Tuesday that Bush will host Saudi leader Crown Prince Abdullah at his Texas ranch on 25 April. They are expected to discuss the Middle East peace process and a Saudi offer to recognize Israel and grant it full ties in exchange for its withdrawal from all lands captured in the 1967 War.