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Middle East: Bush Cites 'Progress' As Powell Heads Home Without Deal

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell ended his 10-day peace mission to the Middle East on 17 April without achieving his chief objectives: a cease-fire and an Israeli withdrawal. But if some analysts see the mission as an outright failure, others say it is a good start for the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, which until recently had stayed out of the conflict. RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports.

Washington, 18 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell are putting a brave face on their first significant foray into the Mideast conflict, despite having little to show from Powell's recent mission to the region.

Powell wrapped up a 10-day tour of the Middle East on 17 April having fallen short of the two key objectives that Bush had laid out for him in a forceful 4 Aprilspeech at the White House Rose Garden: a cease-fire and a fast and full Israeli withdrawal from recently occupied West Bank areas.

And after he left Israel, violence again erupted across the West Bank, with at least three Palestinians reported killed. Palestinian leaders accused Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of sabotaging all of Powell's hard work.

Powell, who faced repeated setbacks to his diplomacy, including a Palestinian suicide bombing on the very day he arrived in Jerusalem last week, was later reportedly snubbed on his way back home when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak did not meet with him in Cairo. Mubarak was reportedly "indisposed," but some analysts saw the move as criticism of Powell's failure to persuade Sharon to withdraw his forces.

So what did Powell actually accomplish? Analysts point to a public condemnation of suicide bombings last week by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat -- a condition imposed on him for meeting with Powell -- and a pledge by Sharon to pull back his troops "within a week or so." But given Bush's demands on 4 April, Powell must have been hoping for better.

And after Powell's departure, Arafat dubbed Sharon's pledge "a sham" and complained about not being able to leave his ravaged West Bank compound in Ramallah.

Israeli officials said Powell's meetings with leaders in Lebanon and Syria had helped to curb three weeks of rocket attacks on Israel by Hizbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon. Dore Gold, a Sharon aide, said Powell achieved "an important accomplishment" by applying "security pressure" to stop the attacks that threatened to broaden the conflict.

Still, analysts said that despite efforts to portray the trip as a success, it was not. Among other things, they cited Powell's bid to start security and political talks with the violence still raging. Israel said it would not negotiate while under fire.

But Michael Dunn, a historian and editor of "The Middle East Journal," a Washington-based publication, believes that at the very least, Powell's trip succeeded in committing the Bush administration to working on a conflict in which it had previously avoided direct involvement.

"I think there is at least a sense that the U.S. has sent a highest-level negotiator out there in the person of the secretary of state and even if he hasn't accomplished anything, the U.S. is at least trying to make the two sides step back from the brink," Dunn said.

At a news conference held in Jerusalem on Wednesday after meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Powell acknowledged that his main goal -- a cease-fire -- was no longer in the cards. Still, he held out hope that it could be forthcoming.

"We could have a cease-fire declared today, but what would it mean while one side is still pursuing an operation that they are bringing to a close, but they have not yet brought to a close, and the other side is not yet in a position to respond, because the incursion has not yet ended, it is in the process of ending, I hope. And so 'cease-fire' is not a relevant term at the moment, but it will become relevant, I believe, very quickly, when the incursion ends, when the withdrawals have been completed," Powell said.

Powell added that both sides would have to make hard compromises to reach a lasting settlement to their dispute. He suggested that Israel would have to put an end to its "settlements and occupation" while Arafat and the Palestinians must renounce violence and terrorism and seriously pursue peace.

Since his 4 April speech, Bush had been quiet on the Middle East, preferring to give what White House spokesman Ari Fleischer called "maximum flexibility" to Powell as he traveled between Arab capitals and Europe seeking support for his bid to broker a truce to more than 18 months of bloodshed.

But on Wednesday, Bush broke his silence. In a speech before a military academy in the U.S. state of Virginia, Bush avoided the categorical rhetoric of 4 April. Instead, he said that while his top envoy had made progress, he had faced huge hurdles in seeking to cool off a conflict that is "centuries old."

"In the Middle East, where acts of terror have triggered mounting violence, all parties have a choice to make. Every leader, every state must choose between two separate paths: the path of peace or the path of terror," Bush said.

The president said that despite "disputes that have lingered for decades," he would continue to lead the region toward a "vision of peace."

"All parties have responsibilities. These responsibilities are not easy but they are clear, and Secretary of State Powell is helping make them clear. I want to thank Secretary of State Powell for his hard work at a difficult task. He returns home having made progress towards peace," Bush said.

Powell is also reportedly considering the idea of holding an international conference with Israel, the Palestinian leadership, and some Arab countries that would seek a solution to the crisis.

However, one influential U.S. commentator suggested on Wednesday that the time has come for Bush to step forward himself and lay down a clear and just American peace plan. Thomas Friedman of "The New York Times" said the plan should give a new United Nations mandate for a new Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, force Israel to withdraw from occupied areas, and provide peacekeeping forces.