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Powell’s Mideast Moment

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s hour has arrived. After failing to win a second resolution at the United Nations to disarm Iraq, the State Department took a back seat as the Pentagon fought and won the war. Now it’s Powell’s turn to try to win the peace by promoting a bold “road map” for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The plan, whose details Bush administration officials confirmed Monday for The Times, is the work of a “quartet” of mediating powers: the U.S., Russia, the United Nations and the European Union. But with U.S. influence in the Middle East high after the swift victory in Iraq, Powell’s role will be key. And despite ongoing resistance from Palestinian radicals, the confirmation of the moderate Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian prime minister makes ending the bloody stalemate less hopeless.

The administration envisions a three-step peace process.

* Palestinians would have to halt their violence against Israel, and Israel would have to freeze the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Palestinians would also have to carry out sweeping economic and political reforms. In return, a provisional state would be formed this year.

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* After Palestinian elections, the quartet parties would, among other things, recognize the creation of a state with provisional borders and convene an international conference to aid Palestinian economic recovery.

* Finally, Israel and the Palestinian government would work out the status of Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinian refugees displaced after 1948 and create permanent borders in 2005.

Concessions for ending settlement activity and dismantling settlement outposts constructed since March 2001 would be painful for Israel. Facing the question of sharing control over Jerusalem would be torture.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government insists that the road map is negotiable. The White House says it’s not. Extremist Israelis and Palestinians would attempt to sabotage negotiations before they could start. Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat clings to power and, to curry favor with the Palestinian street, may well try to block moderate initiatives.

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All these obstacles make Powell’s trip to the Middle East in May critical. He will have to keep up the pressure on all sides -- Israeli, Arab and Palestinian -- to compromise before the moment is lost. The plan’s a good one and President Bush should show resolve, giving Powell the backing he needs to guide the parties along the road the map defines.


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