Secretary of State Colin Powell's resignation and the reported selection of National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice as his successor is being watched with great interest in the Middle East.
The Powell resignation came as no surprise here, although there were those who felt the secretary might be tempted to stay on. The possibility of a more-moderate successor to the late Yasser Arafat was viewed as an opportunity that Mr. Powell might not want to miss. The secretary said as much.
"I think a new opportunity has presented itself in the Middle East and President Bush has spoken to this and hopefully, over the next few weeks, I'll be able to see how much potential there is in this new opportunity in the Middle East with the passing of Chairman Arafat," said Mr. Powell.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who met with Mr. Powell in Washington shortly after the resignation announcement was made, says he was very sorry to hear that the secretary was leaving. He called him a good friend of Israel and a good friend of peace.
The resignation is not expected to have much impact of US policy toward Israel or the broader Middle East.
Former Israel Ambassador to Washington Zalmon Shoval says he did not see Mr. Powell as pro-Palestinian, as some of his critics here have charged. Rather, Mr. Shoval says, his approach to the Middle East was along that held by the Arabists in the State Department ,which does not make him an all-out friend of the Palestinian cause.
"I think he was very clear in his own mind that Arafat was not good news for the Palestinians; that he created a lot of problems; that the Palestinians would have to reform themselves," said Mr. Shoval. "But he may not have been completely in tune with the policies propagated by President Bush himself and some of his advisors."
Mr. Shoval says Mr. Bush's recent statements on the Middle East outline a very clearly delineated policy that is in accordance with Israel's view. That is that the Palestinians must establish a democratic structure and break up what he calls the terrorist infrastructure. He also says Israel needs no international conference or special representatives to be appointed, as the Palestinians have repeatedly called for.
"We continue to see the Sharon disengagement plan, which is basically a Sharon-Bush disengagement plan, as the only game in town and that is the basis on which everything else has to proceed," Mr. Shoval said.
Mahdi Abdul Hadi is the director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs. He, too, anticipates no real changes or any movement toward resuming the peace process, unless Washington changes its priorities. "Whether it is still going to be Iraq, Iran following in the steps of Mr. Sharon or they will realize it has to be Palestine-Israel," said. Mr. Abdel Hadi. "It has to be here."
Mr. Abdel Hadi says there has been no movement in efforts to get the peace process back on track and that no movement is likely unless Washington listens more to what its European partners.
"Condoleeza Rice will know very well about the Wall has been an aggression, settlements should be stopped, the release of detainees is a must," he said. "Changing the environment in Palestinian-Israeli relations should be on the Israeli front first, with no conditions and no pre-conditions, in order to empower the moderate Palestinian leadership and in order not to go into uncertainty for another four years."
Although no one is anticipating any breakthrough or major steps toward a resumption of the peace process, there was some welcome news for the Palestinian leadership, Monday. Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades announced they will unilaterally cease all attacks in Israel for 60 days, to help facilitate elections for Palestinian Authority chairman.