The Short Straw

Happy birthday, Colin Powell. The storied secretary of State turned 65 last Friday, lending gravitas to the "senior" part of his "senior statesman" role. "And his birthday present is a trip to the Middle East," says an old colleague of Powell's, with a rueful chuckle. Mission: Impossible is a better description of what Powell faces this week. The former four-star general has devoted his career to exercising caution, and especially keeping America out of no-win situations. So negotiating peace between two hardened adversaries like Ariel Sharon and Yasir Arafat must come close to being the nightmare assignment--especially now that George W. Bush, in an abrupt policy shift, has declared that "America is committed to ending this conflict." The first of Powell's 13 "rules" for success goes: "It ain't as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning." But the Mideast never looks better in the morning.

Especially now. The administration is stepping in at what may be the stickiest moment in a generation, the middle of a bloody downward spiral to war. Powell is trying to preach peace to two men who, as the 18-month intifada has grown ever bloodier, seem to be convinced more than ever that only war will get them what they want. Sharon's full-scale invasion destroyed Arafat's compound, occupied every major Palestinian city and succeeded in shutting down the suicide bombers for a time. Two days after Bush called for Israel to "halt incursions," Sharon escalated, attacking the Jenin refugee camp on the West Bank and killing dozens of Palestinian fighters. Meanwhile Arafat, holed up in his tank-blasted Ramallah headquarters and speaking to the world by candlelight, was "in his element," says longtime Mideast negotiator Dennis Ross. "He's on top of the world." Having won worldwide sympathy, the khaki-wearing guerrilla leader has also succeeded, once again, in drawing the Americans into his ancient fight with the Israelis. The Bush team, sensitive to political charges that it is caving to terror tactics, tried its best to downplay Arafat's role. But Mideast diplomats said Powell had little choice but to meet with Arafat.

Powell must watch his back as well--as far away as Washington. Despite the apparent victory of Powell's State Department in prodding a reluctant Bush to commit himself to greater Mideast engagement, it's not clear how much support the mission has back at the White House. Sources tell NEWSWEEK the administration is deeply divided between hard-liners, like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who'd like to see Sharon given a free hand, and senior officials at State, who've argued that the president's leadership is on the line unless he tries to resolve the conflict. The State Department has won the day--for the moment. Last Saturday Bush, who had initially resisted giving Sharon a timetable, backed Powell's call for an Israeli withdrawal "without delay," and Sharon, in a phone call, pledged to expedite his military campaign.

As the policy battle rages, Bush's visceral instincts about the conflict may pull him back into the hard-line camp--and undercut Powell. Despite his shift, Bush remains leery of negotiating at all with Arafat; indeed, the president's sympathies are all with Sharon, who has identified his own struggle against Palestinian suicide bombers with Bush's larger war on terror. Gone from the president's speech last Thursday were all references to Arafat as the Palestinian leader--the man the Americans deal with, as Powell put it. Instead Bush said that "responsible Palestinian leaders and Israel's Arab neighbors must step forward." White House officials said the message was clear: this was Arafat's last chance to grasp at peace or be cast into oblivion--or, perhaps, exile, where Sharon wants him. "Chairman Arafat has failed in his leadership, and he has let the people down," Bush said on Saturday. "He had opportunity after opportunity to be a leader, and he hasn't led." A senior administration official says that Bush believes Arafat "wants to be remembered as a freedom fighter, not a peacemaker."

That kind of tough talk works to appease Bush's conservative backers, many of whom are angry over his decision to restrain Sharon. Just as important, it pleases the politically influential U.S. Jewish community, whose support could deliver Florida to Bush in 2004--this time decisively. Indeed, because of the need to address many different constituencies, the president's speech went through 17 drafts, and much of the dickering was over just how tough to be on Arafat. Karl Rove, Bush's principal political adviser, helped craft language he thought was necessary to reassure Israel's supporters: namely, that "Arafat created this problem." Sources say that in order to achieve a near-mathematical balance in the speech, Powell insisted on a qualifier: that the problem was "largely" of Arafat's making. One senior administration official says there was real tension between Bush and Powell over the issue. He says hawks pushed for a bold proposal--abandon Arafat as a negotiating partner, while at the same time putting forward a U.S. outline of a final settlement and demanding that both sides respond to it. He says this was rejected. "They backed off. It was thought too hard. Now we are stuck with going there and temporizing."

Demanding that Arafat either bow to U.S. demands or face replacement is "naive," says Edward Abington, a former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem who now lobbies on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. Famed for his escape from close scrapes, Arafat is back in a role he relishes--embattled underdog--and it may be impossible to go around him. "If Powell chooses not to meet Arafat, he will not meet any Palestinian official," senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said over the weekend. Arafat himself, despite being isolated and humiliated by Israel and treated with open contempt by Washington, remained defiant during a 90-minute meeting last week with U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni. Responding to Zinni's demand that he call a halt to all violence, Arafat said: "How can I do that when the Israelis have launched this military assault?... Palestinians would interpret this as a surrender to Israel." He said the only way he could make such a call was if Israel ended its military campaign and evacuated Palestinian cities.

Even if Arafat were ousted, there may not be any moderate Palestinians to replace him. Certainly, given Palestinian rage, none would be in a position to accept the peace deal that Arafat turned down before the intifada. During Vice President Dick Cheney's trip last month, friendly Arab leaders also insisted that the Americans deal with Arafat.

Further complicating Powell's mission is a lingering question in the region: will the administration stay the course? Bush has made it clear that he's mainly interesting in waging the war on terror, not winning Mideast peace; the administration decided to send Powell only as protests in the Arab world began to threaten U.S. allies like Egypt and Jordan. "What really scared [the Bush administration] was that the anger was shifting from the obvious target, Israel, to the United States and to the Arab regimes and Arab rulers," says a longtime U.S. diplomat in the region. "The anger wasn't just from the usual complainers." It came from officials close to Jordan's King Abdullah and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak. Another administration official says that after seven days of Israeli operations, there was concern that "we reached a tipping point" at which "fundamental pillars of peace"--namely Israel's relationships with Egypt and Jordan--were at stake. The Bushies were also concerned that, as one put it, "we're getting killed in the media." Administration officials don't believe the current spike in oil prices has much to do with the Mideast crisis, but they are concerned about the economic impact leading up to 2004. "The world economy does better when people aren't busy killing each other," one official says.

But the fact that the Americans have ulterior motives isn't lost on the Arabs or Palestinians. When asked how deeply committed the Bush administration is to getting the Palestinians and the Israelis back into serious peace discussions, the U.S. diplomat says: "I fear the U.S. is not very committed. When you have other fish to fry, like Iraq, and other priorities, like the war on terror, it's a problem." But a top Powell aide says the administration has no choice but to stay engaged: "What gives me some confidence is that the trajectory we are on is hurtling toward disaster."

Not surprisingly, the administration is trying to keep expectations low for the Powell trip; it is certainly not looking for a return to Camp David--an all-or-nothing negotiation for a final settlement. "Nobody believes Colin Powell will walk in there and both sides will say 'OK.' This is a lot of hard work," says one administration official. Another Bush loyalist adds, "We're not talking about victory. We're talking about maintenance."

The secretary of State, meanwhile, has his own history of caution to overcome. In many of the signal crises of the past decade or so--among them, the gulf war and Bosnia--Powell, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, counseled a limited U.S. involvement, or none at all. The right wing remembers, for example, that it was Powell who in 1990 questioned whether it was "worth going to war to liberate Kuwait." While Powell's reputation as a diplomat is sky-high around the world, a Capitol Hill expert on the Mideast questions whether he is "almost too diplomatic, when this requires head-cracking."

Powell may get lucky in a confluence of circumstances: that Sharon will decide he's had enough success in counterterror for the moment; that Arafat fears he's truly in a corner this time and must rein in the suicide bombers; that other Arab nations are ready to push for the Saudi peace plan launched in recent weeks. About the stickiest problem at the moment, Israeli withdrawal, a senior U.S. official says: "I do think it's going to happen. The president was quite explicit... At the end of the day, the Israelis will not want to be at cross-purposes with us." Powell's real problem, says negotiator Ross, is that "he can't come back" until he has something to bring home.

Powell's "potential for success does not appear to be particularly high, but I can assure you that if we don't move, we will all fail," says Egypt's ambassador to the United States, Nabil Fahmy. "The making of peace requires perseverance," adds retired senator George Mitchell, whose 18-month-old Mitchell Plan is still the only scheme on the table for peace. "It requires you to drop the word 'failure' from your vocabulary and not be deterred by setbacks." Powell the statesman will now be tested as never before. So perhaps he should take a few words of advice from Powell the former general, namely rule No. 4: "It can be done!"