Secretary of State Colin L. Powell acknowledged Wednesday that Israel can control the pace of Middle East peacemaking but said that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has an obligation not to drag out the process.
Opening a Middle East trip by holding an hourlong meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Powell said the United States cannot order Sharon to push things faster than he wishes. That was bad news to the Egyptians, who urged Powell to press Sharon to move much more quickly to renew Israeli-Palestinian peace talks after nine months of violence.
"It is the parties that will have to decide whether there is an adequate level of quiet to proceed," Powell said here in a joint news conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher. But he added that it is Sharon who can control the time schedule.
Powell is to meet with Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat today in what is shaping up as the most significant day of his trip.
In a remarkably tense public confrontation at the White House on Tuesday, Sharon told President Bush that Israel will not proceed with a six-week "cooling-off period" called for in a U.S.-backed peace plan until the region is "completely quiet" and free of bloodshed for 10 days.
Bush said the Israelis were right in insisting on Palestinian observance of a cease-fire but that it was unreasonable to expect total quiet before the rest of the process, outlined in an international report by a commission headed by former Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), can even begin. Bush said some progress has been made since the U.S.-brokered cease-fire began June 13.
The Mitchell committee plan calls for a cease-fire, a cooling-off period, confidence-building measures such as a freeze on Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the rearrest by Palestinian authorities of militants who have been released from jails. The final step in the sequence is a resumption of the peace negotiations that broke down last year.
Talking to reporters on the way to Egypt, Powell said he is bringing no new plan or new ideas. The Mitchell committee proposal, he said, is the only thing on the table.
"Frankly, I think it would be not useful at this point for other ideas to come floating in," he said.
The Bush-Sharon standoff angered and frightened Israelis.
"The U.S. and Israel do not see the situation eye to eye, and that's an understatement," diplomatic correspondent Hemi Shalev wrote in the daily newspaper Maariv. "The honeymoon, if that was what it was, is coming to an end."
The U.S., Shalev and other commentators wrote, is eager to revive the Israeli-Palestinian political process, a step Sharon is loath to take with a Palestinian Authority that he regards as untrustworthy. Sharon reportedly was caught off guard by Bush's insistence that progress has been made in the effort to reduce the violence when the prime minister sees only failure by Arafat's administration to completely halt all attacks on Israelis.
"Sharon expected strokes and coddling. Instead he got a humiliating public blow from the president," Shalev wrote. The administration may not have understood the political damage the public spat caused Sharon, Shalev said. The prime minister's critics on the right "from now on will be able to claim that his efforts to satisfy the Americans by means of a policy of restraint have ended in disappointment and a painful public slap in the face."
Maher, standing at Powell's side in Alexandria, said Egypt and other Arab nations do not believe that the shaky cease-fire will hold up long unless there is movement on confidence-building measures and the resumption of negotiations. He said the timetable envisioned in the Mitchell report should be compressed, not lengthened.
In a Solomonic attempt to split the difference, Powell said the Mitchell plan is a package and all of it must be implemented. But he said it has a clear sequence of events in which an end to violence is the first step.
Writing in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, diplomatic analyst Nahum Barnea said the administration is insisting to Sharon that whatever progress the Palestinians make toward reimposing control over militants is "worthy of compensation. That compensation is to progress to diplomatic negotiations according to the Mitchell outline."
The differences between the Bush administration and Sharon over how to deal with Arafat is profound, Barnea wrote.
"The Americans view Arafat as a boy who tripped up, as a partner to stopping terrorism, even if he is only there against his will and because he was pressured. Sharon is convinced that Arafat is the snake's head, the arch-terrorist," Barnea wrote.
Palestinian officials saw comments by Sharon and Bush at the White House as the first public sign that an administration they have regarded as generally hostile to them may be losing patience with Sharon. Finally, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Voice of Palestine radio, the U.S. understands that "the Israeli government honors no agreement."
"We welcome Mr. Powell here," Ahmed Korei, another Palestinian negotiator, said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "We hope that he will put things on the right track."
Kempster reported from Alexandria and Curtius from Jerusalem.