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Powell trip leaves tough questions unanswered

By Elise Labott
CNN Washington Bureau

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Even before U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell left Washington on his peace mission, officials close to him were downplaying expectations.

"Look beyond the trip," one Powell aide said at the outset of the secretary's 10-day stint of shuttle diplomacy.

U.S. officials couldn't help but feel Powell was going it alone. In the weeks before his departure, administration officials reached out to allies with the message that while the United States was prepared to become more deeply involved, Powell needed international support. The response was not encouraging.

"They all wanted to know where we were, why we didn't come sooner," one senior administration official said. "Well, where have they been besides in their own corner, looking our for their own interests?"

But as Powell made his way to moderate Arab states such as Morocco, Jordan and Egypt, and to Madrid for meetings with EU ministers, he was able to curb the groundswell of criticism and gain support for ending the crisis.

When he left Madrid after a meeting with the European Union, Russia and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Powell carried a full endorsement of his mission to try to prod the parties into signing a cease-fire and move toward political negotiations.

Powell arrived in Israel with a clear mandate from President Bush to persuade Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to withdraw Israeli troops from the West Bank. His initial meetings with Sharon were said to be tense, the prime minister unwilling to commit to a withdrawal and Powell unable to deliver commitments by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat until tanks rolled out of the West Bank.

Almost a day after arriving, Powell was introduced firsthand to the violence in the region. As he flew north to Israel's border with Lebanon, Powell was notified of a suicide bombing in Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market and flew over the site. Aides said the day was a sobering revelation for Powell about the nature of the conflict and the challenges ahead.

Despite attempts by Sharon to dissuade Powell from meeting with Arafat, the secretary decided to meet with the Palestinian leader at his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Arafat gave an hour-long presentation, which officials described as serious and organized, on how he saw the situation and what he was prepared to do provided the Israelis withdrew. Powell is said to have given Arafat a clear message that not only would a campaign of suicide bombings fail to deliver a Palestinian state, but that he could lose the support of his people, and possibly his life in the process. With Israeli tanks rolling into dozens of West Bank cities and reports of devastation in Nablus and Jenin, Arafat was not in a bargaining mood

With a cease-fire looking unlikely, Powell focused on smaller, but symbolic issues in the crisis, such as ending the standoff at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, where about 200 Palestinians were holed up in the building, surrounded by Israeli tanks. Powell also sought Israeli withdrawal from around Arafat's headquarters.

But when Powell met with Arafat for a second time, he arrived empty-handed. The two-hour meeting was said to be "sad" and "frustrating," Powell unable to get Arafat to agree to take any further steps to contain Palestinian extremism.

As Powell wrapped up his stay, many Israeli and Palestinian officials and some in the media were calling his mission a failure because of his inability to secure a cease-fire. But Powell questioned whether such a term was even relevant.

"We can have a cease-fire declared today," he said at his parting news conference. "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 ended."

Officials say one of the main tasks of the team Powell has left behind is to address the rebuilding of the Palestinian Authority with the aim of creating a new infrastructure to deal with terrorism and reinstituting security cooperation with the Israelis.

Powell also expanded the narrow mission of an Israeli withdrawal to encompass the need for political negotiations in tandem with an improvement in the security situation -- something the Palestinians have been fighting for since the intifada began in September 2000.

Although he did not leave with the elusive cease-fire, Powell's mission represented the Bush administration's deepening engagement in the Mideast conflict. Powell is expected to return to the region in May. He will likely renew discussions on an international peace conference to get the parties to implement the Tenet security work plan and Mitchell reports and to address Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's proposal for a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab world in exchange for a return to the 1967 borders.

Powell left Israel posing tough questions to the Israelis about whether it was time to end the occupations, including settlements, which Powell called "destructive." He asked the Palestinians whether they can choose peace and set their sights squarely on achieving a Palestinian state.

Powell also cautioned the Arab world to end the incitement of hatred toward Israel in their media and public discourse and to start thinking about a peace between Israel and its neighbors -- questions that he hopes to help the parties answer when he comes back to the region.

There will be plenty of work awaiting Powell when he returns to the region. But U.S. officials hope the situation on the ground doesn't make his next mission even harder.




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