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Powell Set to Revive Peace Push, but No Big Surprises Are Expected

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Israel and the American Jewish community are hoping the Bush administration’s efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian talks will be a catalyst for peace.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is expected to outline a plan toward ending violence in the region in a speech Monday in Louisville, Ky.

Details of the address are still being hashed out, but community leaders say it is aimed at reinvigorating proposals already on the table, instead of formulating a new Middle East policy.

Although Powell is expected to reiterate the ultimate goal of a Palestinian state, he is also expected to place increased pressure on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to curb violence in the region.

The new U.S. initiative is not expected to tackle the final-status issues that derailed previous peace efforts, including the right of return for Palestinian refugees and the fate of Jerusalem.

It will also not delve into details of the kind that former President Clinton outlined in a speech shortly before leaving office last year, sources say.

What remains to be determined is what details will be included.

Ideas are being floated by the administration to Israeli and Arab officials in the United States, and Israeli officials in Washington say they have been assured they “will not be surprised” by the initiatives in the speech.

American Jewish leaders say the State Department has been willing to meet with them to hear their concerns and priorities, but have not shown them a draft.

It is also unclear whether Powell will adopt the peace proposals being floating in Israel by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and others. Peres’ plan reportedly calls for Israel to dismantle settlements in Gaza and allow the Palestinians to erect a state there.

But that plan does not appear to have the support of the coalition government in Israel, especially as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon faces tough criticism from his right.

Powell’s speech is expected to be a road map toward an ultimate two-state solution, piecing together plans and initiatives that have been outlined in the past year.

Key among those principles is the Tenet plan, hammered out by CIA Director George Tenet in June after a suicide bombing in a Tel Aviv disco. The plan seeks immediate resumption in security cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians, calls for the end to violence in the region and a restoration of the situation on the ground to what it was before the uprising began in September of last year.

Its goal is to get the two parties to implement the Mitchell plan, named for former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, which outlines a three-pronged approach to rebuilding relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority — ending violence, rebuilding confidence and resuming peace negotiations.

The Mitchell plan recommends a “cooling-off period” and urges both sides to condemn incitement. It also seeks “100 percent effort” from the Palestinian Authority in curbing violence and demands that Israel freeze settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Then there is the question of a Palestinian state.

While the details still need to be worked out, sources say, Powell is expected to reiterate the words that have come from President Bush and others in his administration in the last few weeks, emphasizing an eventual Palestinian state, with security for both countries.

The Bush administration will be trying to balance the concerns of many different national and international constituencies with the new initiative.

In the post-Sept. 11 atmosphere, the White House would prefer to focus attention away from the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, and concentrate on maintaining its coalition against terrorism. But it knows that Arab countries are pressing for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

In order to propose a deal that will entice Arafat, the United States is evoking the name “Palestine” and the vision of an eventual state, sources say. But, it is also placing additional public pressure on the Palestinian Authority to clamp down on terrorism and incitement.

While plans for a new initiative had been considered throughout the last two months, the timing of next week’s address seems to be optimal, analysts say.

With the first two months of the war on terrorism showing modest successes, the United States is in a good position to flex its international muscle, they say.

“The U.S. has the wind at its back,” said Tom Smerling, Washington director of the Israel Policy Forum.

Smerling, who announced he is leaving his position next month for personal reasons, said the Palestinians are beginning to see the effectiveness of the intifada waning, and the Israelis are seeing the limits of controlling violence militarily.

“Everybody seems to be getting ready for a diplomatic push,” he said. “That will never happen without a good shove from the United States; it never does.”

Although some in the American Jewish community had been wary of a new U.S. initiative, recent comments from the Bush administration have helped calm their fears.

In the first weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, the White House was seen to be courting Arab states, and American Jewish leaders feared any new initiative would favor the Palestinians.

But in the past two weeks, the administration has placed additional sanctions on Palestinian terrorist groups, and the White House has publicly held Arafat’s feet to the fire.

Jewish officials were heartened by comments such as the one last week by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.

“You cannot help us with Al Qaida and hug Hezbollah,” she told the Palestinians. “That’s not acceptable. Or Hamas.”

And despite Bush’s use of the name “Palestine” to describe an eventual state during his address to the United Nations on Saturday, Jewish leaders were impressed by his tough comments on Palestinian violence.

“No national aspiration, no remembered wrong can ever justify the deliberate murder of the innocent,” Bush said to the U.N. General Assembly.

“Any government that rejects this principle, trying to pick and choose its terrorist friends, will know the consequences. We must speak the truth about terror.”

Some American Jewish officials say privately they would have preferred a new push on the Middle East to come from the president, because the White House has generally demonstrated more understanding than the State Department.

The State Department will not confirm Israeli media reports that Powell will follow up his speech with a trip to the region.

In addition, Powell may re-establish the position of a special envoy for the peace process, a job which was eliminated when Bush took office in January. But he is not expected to fill the role immediately.

Sharon, however, is expected to come to Washington on Dec. 3 for high-level meetings that were postponed last week.

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