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Powell Arrives in Israel Facing Major Hurdles

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell arrived in Jerusalem late Thursday to launch the critical phase of his long-shot Middle East peace mission--and test a new strategy to try to overcome the dangerous hostilities and deep rage between Israelis and Palestinians.

Powell, past master of military strategy and current maestro of U.S. foreign policy, will need to tap both skills to pull off anything that leads to either a lasting cease-fire or an agreement from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to face each other across a negotiating table.

But the landscape Powell wakes up to today is forbidding: On Thursday, Israeli authorities carried out targeted raids and reported two thwarted plots by suspected suicide bombers, and Palestinians counted their dead in the 2-week-old Israeli offensive in the West Bank. Sharon pledged that he wouldn’t retreat until the last Palestinian extremist had surrendered.

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Even U.S. officials acknowledge that the deck is stacked against Powell. “Getting those two back into a real peace process makes getting Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait look comparatively straightforward,” said a Bush administration official, referring to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Powell served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Powell’s new strategy calls for a new timetable that eliminates what is known as sequence--a cease-fire followed by political talks--thus addressing the demands of all parties to the conflict at the same time.

The central problem is that the Israeli government doesn’t want to talk peace until suicide bombings cease and the security situation is stabilized. And the Palestinian Authority has been unwilling to rein in the violence without guarantees of a political process that will lead to an independent state in a reasonable time frame.

The most important shift in U.S. tactics over the past week, Arab leaders say, is Washington’s recognition that it must accelerate the political process and not leave it until the end, as Israel has stipulated. Arab leaders, whose role is critical in the effort to convince Arafat to cooperate, are backing the Palestinian demand.

“We are not going to lift a finger to pressure Arafat until we are convinced there is a political process on the way--a mechanism that translates the principle of a two-state solution into action,” said an Arab foreign minister who talked to Powell this week. “And we’re not talking 30 years away--or even two years away. We have to go all the way, and soon.”

After talks Thursday evening between Powell and King Abdullah II in Amman, Jordan’s capital, Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher said the Arab world now expects Powell to put forward a plan for the political end game. It should include a road map with “milestones” that cover “all parameters of a solution--so that we truly present a credible alternative to the violence that is going on today,” he said at a news conference with Powell.

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The new U.S. approach to the Mideast crisis includes a tough-love stance with Israel, its closest ally in the volatile region, that involves both carrots and sticks. Days after President Bush demanded that Israel withdraw “without delay,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Thursday that Bush considers Sharon “a man of peace.”

The withdrawal is “perhaps not as fast as some might like,” Powell acknowledged. The president wants to see more progress, he added, noting that the withdrawal schedule will be part of a “very long conversation” when he meets Sharon this morning.

But Powell, who talked to Sharon by telephone Thursday, also issued a blunt warning about the dangers of Israeli intransigence.

“However effective Israeli defense forces will be right now in routing out terrorism . . . there may still be people who are willing to resort to violence and terror, people who are willing to use suicide bombs and other kinds of bombs,” Powell said at a news conference in Madrid, where he met with Russian officials earlier Thursday.

“After those incursions, the violence and that anger and frustration will still be there unless we find a negotiating process that both sides have confidence in, a negotiating process that will lead to what the Palestinian people want,” he said.

Powell also intends to play tough with Arafat when they meet Saturday at the Palestinian leader’s besieged headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, U.S. officials say.

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Over the past four days, the administration has backed away from the idea of cultivating contacts with possible alternative Palestinian leaders. Saudi, Moroccan, Egyptian, Jordanian and other Arab officials have convinced Powell that no other Palestinian can either claim legitimate leadership or rein in the violence.

But Powell does plan to make clear that the United States will do nothing to accelerate the process of a Palestinian state or support the reconstruction of heavily damaged Palestinian areas and institutions unless Arafat moves--decisively and quickly--to do all he can to end the wave of suicide bombings.

Although Powell has received wide backing for the broad outlines of his strategy on the road leading to Jerusalem, both sides are expected to play hardball with him.

The standoff boils down to a chicken-and-egg conundrum of what happens first--or who takes the first step. Trust is almost nonexistent, U.S. officials acknowledge.

Despite the former general’s charisma, global stature and clout as the world’s most powerful diplomat, a State Department official lamented Thursday, “Even Mother Teresa would have a problem dealing with these guys,” referring to the stubborn septuagenarian Israeli and Palestinian leaders, whose battles are now personal as well as political.

Powell admitted candidly before leaving Madrid earlier Thursday that “everything happening now is an impediment to getting to the end point.”

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But he also tried to be upbeat about the challenge. “I don’t like wallowing with pessimists,” he said when asked if he is taking on a “mission impossible” in trying to defuse the Mideast crisis. “I am proud to be going. . . . My mission is still on. I’m not concerned about it.”

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