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Powell Trip to Explore Chances for Peace in Post-Arafat World


Secretary of State Colin Powell travels to the Middle East next week for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on how to best facilitate upcoming Palestinian presidential elections and how to get the long-stalled peace process moving again.

The internationally-backed "roadmap" for peace has lain dormant almost since it was launched by President Bush a year and a half ago. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians fulfilled even the first stages of the plan.

Israel and the United States blamed Yasser Arafat for the lack of progress. The Palestinians blamed Israel. But since Mr. Arafat's death last week, the issue of renewing the peace process has again taken center stage.

President Bush said as much during a White House news conference last week.

"My hope is that we will make good progress," said Mr. Bush. "I think it is very important for our friends the Israelis to have a peaceful Palestinian state living on their border. It is very important for the Palestinian people to have a peaceful hopeful future."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also spoke of renewing the peace process following Mr. Arafat's death when he said that the Middle East had reached a turning point.

Mr. Sharon said Israel would continue to seek peace with the Palestinians, but said the new leadership would first have to show it is serious about stopping terrorism.

Israel and the United States long accused Yasser Arafat of supporting attacks against Israelis. They said he was not a partner for peace and they refused to deal with him.

Palestinians see it differently. Opinions polls have shown the vast majority of them believe Mr. Sharon is the stumbling block to peace.

Palestinian sociologist Nader Izzat Sa'id of Birzeit University in Ramallah regularly polls Palestinian public opinion. He dismisses the Israeli and American position that Yasser Arafat was not a partner for peace negotiations.

"First of all you negotiate with your enemies you do not negotiate with your friends, and second of all we are not very happy about negotiating with Sharon, but still we have to negotiate with him because he is elected," he explained.

Palestinians are very aware that Mr. Arafat's death brings new opportunities.

"Mr. Yasser Arafat was declared irrelevant and not a partner by the Israelis and the Americans," said Mahmoud Labadi, the Director General of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

"Hopefully, they will change their position and they will start to talk to the new Palestinian leadership."

Former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, interim leader of the PLO, and the man seen by many as the most likely Arafat successor is considered a reformer and moderate who has denounced militant attacks against Israel.

But, while Mr. Abbas has Washington's support, he has little among Palestinians. Sociologist Nader Izzat Sa'id says that poses a real problem when it comes to peace negotiations.

"Someone like Abbas does not have the popularity to carry such a risky project with Sharon and with the United States," said Mr. Sa'id. "He has to be popular and has to be very much supported by the people to be able to go through this process."

Professor Sa'id says none of the current interim leaders has the popular support or political clout to make tough decisions in any negotiations.

President Bush says democracy is a prerequisite for a future Palestinian state. Palestinian leaders say they are on the way with elections to choose a successor to Mr. Arafat scheduled by January 9.

Mr. Abbas has also been negotiating with militant groups to halt violence and ensure an orderly transition of power.

Israel has scaled back its military action in the Palestinian territories and indicated it might coordinate with the Palestinians on the planned Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom spoke recently of being at the "doorstep of a new era" that holds out much promise. But, he also said Israelis should not expect too much.

He says that even a new and moderate Palestinian leadership is not necessarily going to accept the Israeli position and he says negotiations will not be easy, maybe even very hard. He adds it is worth a try because if they succeed it would be a historic move that could change not only the Middle East, but the whole world.

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