JERUSALEM (Apr. 14)
Given the Israeli and Palestinian positions, chances appear slim that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s peacekeeping mission will prove a success.
Political observers here attribute their low expectations from Powell’s mission to the two key players and adversaries in the conflict: Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
For Sharon, Powell’s efforts to reach a cease-fire and make progress on the diplomatic front run contrary to Sharon’s desire to “finish-up” his military operation against the Palestinian terror infrastructure in the West Bank.
In addition, these observers say, Sharon is not interested in seeing Arafat resurrected as a legitimate partner in a diplomatic dialogue.
Further lowering the chances of a diplomatic breakthrough, the Palestinians have said they are not interested in taking any conciliatory steps until Israel withdraws its troops from the West Bank.
The swell of international support Arafat is currently enjoying makes him even less inclined to offer any concessions, observers note.
During a meeting Sunday with Powell, Sharon proposed the idea of a U.S.-hosted Middle East peace conference. Sharon said after the meeting that his proposal was acceptable to the United States.
A senior U.S. State Department official told Reuters that more discussions were necessary regarding timing, location and participants.
Sunday’s meeting was the second Powell had with Sharon over the weekend. In both sets of discussions, Powell failed to secure a timetable from Sharon for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian-controlled areas.
Following last Friday’s talks with Sharon, Powell attempted to balance his understanding of Israel’s need for security with the need to progress toward a cease-fire.
“We do understand what terrorism is, and as we have responded to terrorism, we know that Israel has a right to respond to terrorism. The question is how do we get beyond just a response,” Powell told reporters.
Sharon said at the time he hoped to wind up the Israeli operation soon, but that suicide bombers are “a danger to Israel and all of the free world.”
Before meeting with Sharon on Sunday, Powell made little progress during a three-hour meeting with Arafat at the Palestinian leader’s Ramallah headquarters.
Powell called the meeting “useful and constructive,” but he indicated no progress toward a cease-fire.
That meeting was made possible after the Palestinian Authority president issued a statement condemning last Friday’s suicide bombing in Jerusalem in which six people were killed and 75 injured.
“We strongly condemn all attacks targeting civilians from both sides, and especially the attack that took place against Israeli citizens yesterday in Jerusalem,” Arafat said in Saturday’s statement.
On Sunday, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said the United States is now waiting to see Arafat follow up on the statement with meaningful action.
Powell delivered “a very strong message to Chairman Arafat” that President Bush and other U.S. officials are “watching to make certain that he follows up on some of the very positive statements” Arafat made Saturday, Rice said on NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press.”
Dampening hopes for a speedy move toward a cease-fire, Palestinian officials said Sunday that Arafat would carry through with a pledge to curb terror only after Israel ends its military operation in the West Bank.
“Once the Israelis complete their full withdrawal, we will, as Palestinians, carry out our obligations,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told CNN.
For its part, Israel has said it will end its military operation in the West Bank only after its forces have finished rounding up Palestinian terrorists.
At Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said Israel had arrested some 1,200 suspected terrorists since launching its Operation Protective Wall on March 29 in an attempt to round up terrorists and collect illegal arms in Palestinian-controlled cities.
Adding to the Israeli demands, Ra’anan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon, said after the Cabinet meeting that Israel would insist that Arafat turn over wanted terrorists alleged to be inside Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters.
“Arafat is hosting terrorists who are wanted in Israel,” Gissin told CNN, adding that the assassins of Israeli Cabinet minister Rehavam Ze’evi are among those taking refuge in Arafat’s compound.
U.S. and Palestinian officials were slated to meet Monday to follow up on Powell’s meeting with Arafat.
Also on Monday, Powell was scheduled to visit Lebanon and Syria to discuss the tensions along Israel’s northern border, where Hezbollah gunmen have repeatedly fired on Israeli positions.
According to news reports of last Friday’s meeting, Sharon reiterated to Powell his proposal for a long-term interim agreement, in which political progress could be made once a cease-fire is in place.
To underscore the reason for his desire to remain in the West Bank until the Palestinian terror infrastructure is destroyed, Sharon showed Powell pictures of carnage from Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israel.
The secretary of state also got a chance to witness some of that carnage firsthand: Last Friday’s suicide bombing in Jerusalem occurred as Powell was wrapping up talks in Jerusalem.
Powell was at the Knesset landing pad, about to board a helicopter. At the directive of Ben-Eliezer, the pilot flew over the attack site.
The female terrorist struck in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market just hours after Powell met with Sharon.
The bomber blew herself at a bus station outside a bakery, as a bus pulled up.
Police said a heavy security presence prevented the bomber from entering the market and carrying out her attack there.
The Al-Aksa Brigades, the militant wing of Arafat’s Fatah Party, claimed responsibility for the blast.
Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin said the bombing was just the beginning of “punishment” for Israel’s military offensive in the West Bank.
Meanwhile, tensions remained high at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity.
On Sunday, Israeli troops shot a Palestinian gunman near the church.
The army said the Palestinian, who later died of his wounds, was preparing to fire at soldiers.
Some 200 Palestinian gunmen are believed to be inside the church, which Christian tradition considers the spot where Jesus was born.
Israel says the gunmen, who include known terrorists, are holding nuns and priests inside as hostages, but some of the clergy say they are there of their own volition.
In a standoff that has lasted some two weeks, Israeli forces have surrounded the church, but will not attack it because of the expected international fall-out.
Israeli officials said Sunday the army will continue the siege until the gunmen surrender or go into “permanent exile.”
The Palestinian side rejected the demand.