The Bush administration, even as it pursues its anti-terror war in Afghanistan, is stepping up its diplomatic role in the Middle East. Secretary of State Colin Powell announced the moves in a much-anticipated policy speech Monday in Louisville, Kentucky.
The secretary had originally intended to make the Middle East policy statement in September. But it was postponed after the New York and Washington terror attacks, with the administration preoccupied with the September 11 tragedy, and unwilling to be seen as being in any way responsive to terrorists claiming to have acted in the name of the Palestinians.
In the speech, on the University of Louisville campus, Mr. Powell stressed that Palestinian leaders have rejected what he called Osama bin Laden's attempt to "hijack their cause for his murderous ends."
At the same time, however, he left little doubt his message was at least in part aimed at satisfying Arab coalition partners who have faulted the administration's degree of commitment to Middle East peace-making.
He announced he was sending Assistant Secretary William Burns to the region this week and also dispatching former Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni on an open-ended mission to the area to nail down an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire.
Mr. Powell said the administration would "push and prod" and do everything it can to help the process along.
He said he and President Bush are convinced the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be resolved, but only if the parties face up to "fundamental truths" beginning with, he said, Palestinian acceptance of the Israelis' right to live their lives free of terror and war.
"The Palestinian leadership must make a 100 percent effort to end violence and end terror. There must be real results, not just words and declarations," he said. "Terrorists must be stopped before they act. The Palestinian leadership must arrest, prosecute and punish the perpetrators of terrorist acts. The Palestinians must live up to agreements they have made to do so. They must be held into account when they do not."
Mr. Powell also urged an end to what he called "endless" messages of incitement and hatred of Israelis and Jews in the Palestinian and broader Arab media, saying no one can claim a commitment to peace while feeding a culture of hatred.
The Secretary coupled those remarks with blunt criticism of Israeli policy, including what he termed its "occupation" of the West Bank and Gaza, humiliating and often violent treatment of Palestinians, and settlement-building in the areas, which he cast as a serious obstacle to peace.
"Israeli settlement activity," he said, "has severely undermined Palestinian trust and hope. It preempts and prejudges the outcome of negotiations and, in doing so, cripples chances for real peace and security. The United States has long opposed settlement activity. Consistent with the report of the committee headed by Senator George Mitchell, settlement activity must stop. For the sake of Palestinians and Israelis alike, the occupation must end, and it can only end through negotiations."
Mr. Powell reiterated President Bush's endorsement earlier this month of a final peace that would include a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel.
But as expected, he offered no new U.S. proposals on terms of a final-status deal, and said the roadmap back to the peace table already exists in the cease-fire plan brokered last June by CIA Director George Tenet and the Mitchell recommendations.
Mr. Powell and others in the Bush administration were at first leery of the practice, common during the Clinton years, of dispatching special envoys to the region, whose duties often overlapped with those of U.S. diplomats in the area.
But they are clearly hopeful about the mission of General Zinni, a tough-minded former commander of U.S. armed forces in the Middle East.
Enroute back to Washington from Louisville, Mr. Powell quipped to reporters that "you will see what pushing and prodding is" when the retired U.S. marine gets to the area.