DEBKAfile 17 April 2002

"That US Secretary of State Colin Powell wound up his 10-day ceasefire mission in the Middle East without once mentioning its object is a measure of its failure. Asked by a reporter at his final news briefing in Jerusalem Wednesday, April 17, what happened to the ceasefire, he said the word was not relevant.

Sent to calm the Middle East storm and let the Bush administration complete its war plans against Iraq undisturbed, Powell leaves behind a furious caldron. A multi-fronted war looms large, while the threat of an oil embargo against the US and Israel’s friends has expanded. Iran and Iraq hope to rope in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela too. In Beirut, even the five-day lull in Hizballah’s cross-border attacks against northern Israel is not attributed to Powell’s efforts, but rather as a gesture of goodwill in advance of prime minister Rafiq Hariri’s White House interview with President George W. Bush Wednesday, April 17.

Powell’s final two-hour session with Yasser Arafat Wednesday in his besieged headquarters in Ramallah left the Palestinian leader boiling over with rage and threats. 'My situation,' he spat out to reporters, 'will be reflected in the stability of the whole region!'

The US Secretary emerged from the confrontation tight-lipped.

By the last day of his trip, the serious erosion in America’s military and diplomatic clout in the region could not be concealed. The US secretary’s tour took him to Morocco, where he met King Mohamed VI as well as the vacationing Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah; to Damascus, for talks with President Bashar Assad; to Beirut, for a meeting with Haririi; and to Ramallah, to see Yasser Arafat. He cautioned them all, excepting Abdullah: If you keep going as you are and disregard American wishes – especially its demands to restrain terrorism - prepare for a full-fledged showdown with Washington.

However, the US secretary’s diplomatic efforts to come up with bridging formulae between US and Arab positions – not to speak of common US-Palestinian ground – got nowhere.

Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak went so far as to call off his meeting with Powell on his way home to Washington, announcing he was 'indisposed'. Mubarak, like other moderate Arab leaders, fears that a display of sympathy for American positions could lead his regime into perilous waters.

In private conversations with Jordan’s King Abdullah and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, the US secretary made no bones about the imminence of regional war clouds.

At his final news conference in Jerusalem Wednesday, shortly after his interview with Arafat, Powell laid down the prerequisites for progress towards a comprehensive settlement:

-- The Israelis must end settlement and occupation. Sharon, he said, had given him a timeline of around a week for Israel’s military withdrawal from re-occupied areas, excepting for Arafat’s compound in Ramallah and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The Israeli prime minister said reservists would be sent home next week;
-- The Palestinians must renounce terror and violence – especially of suicides, because they holding the people’s dreams of peace and statehood hostage. This is an indispensable condition for progress and a strategic choice Arafat must make;
-- The Arabs must transform Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah’s peace initiative to reality, as well as condemning and combating terrorism, including funding and incitement;
-- The international community must help America persuade the Palestinians and Arab leaders to renounce their support for terrorism.

In short, Powel translated the blunt Bush ultimatum to world leaders into Middle East language, namely: If you are not with us in the battle against global terror, you are against us. So if you sink further in that swamp, you’re on your own.

DEBKAfile’s sources sum up the US secretary’s efforts at his two most time-consuming stops: Jerusalem and Ramallah

Powell failed to convince Sharon to keep Israel’s responses to suicide attacks low key. Israel, said the prime minister, would meet multi-casualty suicide attacks with larger and more devastating military punishment than even the Jenin operation. However, the US secretary acknowledged that Washington had gained a better understanding of the link between Arafat, the launch of his Intifada and the militant postures of Iraq and Iran. The need to cut that link had led the Bush administration to its final decision, the first steps of which were approached before Powell left the region, to wash its hands of Arafat as Palestinian leader and to headhunt a replacement.

The significance of this decision transcends Palestinian national considerations and the Israel-Palestinian conflict; it is a key brick in the plan to transform national borders and relocate populaces that the Bush administration aspires to achieve in the Middle East and Persian Gulf, a plan we have referred to in previous reports.

Arafat refused to hear of any action to restrain terrorist action against Israel – especially the suicide attacks. The moment Powell has gone, therefore, the Palestinians will make every effort to overcome the severe curtailment of their capabilities, imposed by Israel’s three-week military operation against Palestinian terrorist strongholds on the West bank, and unleash a fresh suicide offensive. As American reporters left his besieged headquarters in Ramallah Wednesday, the Palestinian leader stopped them with a diatribe: 'What do you Americans think? Do you think it is acceptable for me not to be able to go out of this door? Don’t you understand it will reflect on the stability of the entire Middle East?'

The trouble for Arafat is that the Americans do understand the threat his war and terror offensive pose for the Middle East. That is why they may have asked Israel to ease his conditions, but not to end his isolation."