Secretary of State Colin L. Powell acknowledged Friday that Israel's conditions for further peace talks with the Palestinians are so tough that negotiations may never resume.
Talking to reporters on his way home from the Middle East, Powell said the United States will continue to support the "timeline" he worked out Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat for as long as it has any chance of working. For now, he said, Washington has no fallback position.
"But a plan that never gets started or implemented loses its utility," Powell said.
The plan the secretary of State brokered between Sharon and Arafat calls for seven consecutive days without the violence and bloodshed that have racked the region since September. That would be followed by a six-week "cooling-off period" and then a series of confidence-building measures leading ultimately to a resumption of talks.
The seven-day requirement was Sharon's price for agreeing to the process, which was recommended by an international commission headed by former Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Maine). Powell bristled at suggestions that the plan is unrealistic because the chance of a full week without fighting seems remote.
"I'm very realistic about how tough a standard that is," Powell said.
But for the time being, he said, the U.S. is not going to suggest any approach other than the Mitchell proposals.
"You can't come up with a new idea every two weeks on how to stop the violence," he said. But if the present stalemate continues for too long, he added, "we have to come up with new approaches."
On the last day of his Middle East diplomatic tour, Powell conferred with Jordan's King Abdullah II in the Jordanian capital, Amman, and with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah in Paris.
In Amman, Powell assured the Hashemite monarch that the U.S. is sympathetic to the economic damage that sanctions against Iraq cause Jordan, which shares a long border with the Persian Gulf nation. He said the king expressed concern that a new sanctions regime the U.S. and Britain are trying to push through the U.N. Security Council might make Jordan's difficulties even greater.
But for Powell, an avid car buff, the high point of the two-hour visit to Jordan probably was a high-speed drive in the king's supercharged silver convertible BMW two-seater.
With Powell behind the wheel and the monarch in the passenger seat, the sports car set the pace of a motorcade from the airport to the Barakah Palace.
"It was a great one-on-one," Powell said, using diplomatic jargon for his time alone with the king. "I drove."
Powell described as "really a courtesy call" his Paris meeting with the Saudi crown prince, who is de facto ruler of the desert kingdom because of the frail health of his half-brother, King Fahd.
But relations between the two nations have been strained over Saudi charges that Washington favors Israel in the conflict with the Palestinians and over the kingdom's complaint that last week's indictments in New York of 14 suspects in the 1996 bombing of a U.S. military barracks in Saudi Arabia were an affront to the Saudi judicial system.
Meanwhile, a Palestinian mortar attack in the Gaza Strip and a grenade assault near the Egyptian border were among violent incidents preventing the start Friday of the seven-day period that Sharon says is intended to test Arafat's willingness to stop terrorist attacks against Israelis.
"The violence continues," Powell said. "This is not Day One of anything."
Nine months of clashes have left about 600 people dead, most of them Palestinians. Since a U.S.-brokered cease-fire took effect June 13, nine Palestinians and seven Israelis have been killed. Nevertheless, the level of violence has been much lower since Israel and the Palestinians agreed to the cease-fire.
Sharon has come under increasing pressure from hard-line Israelis to take much stronger military action. Since a Palestinian bomber killed himself and 21 young people June 1 at a Tel Aviv discotheque, the demand for military action has grown.
Israeli media accounts have said that Sharon planned to warn the Bush administration that he will have to launch an offensive against Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank and Gaza unless violence ends.
But Powell said that Sharon and his military officers did not discuss the issue with him.
"They didn't tell me what they might do," Powell said.
He said he was confident that Sharon, also a former military commander, would not interpret anything he said as approval of Israeli escalation.
"Mr. Sharon and I have a pretty good relationship," Powell said. "We speak straight language to each other, and there is seldom any confusion. It's general to general."