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How Do Analysts View the Impact of Powell's Mideast Trip? - 2002-04-09

Secretary of State Colin Powell is due Thursday in Israel, one-day sooner than expected. His mission is to revive cease-fire negotiations to end 18-months of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Israelis and Palestinians have different views on what his visit can achieve.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has started pulling out some troops from the West Bank, but he has not set a date for the end of the military campaign. And he has said some forces will have to remain to enforce new security buffer zones.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat remains confined to his Ramallah headquarters, surrounded by Israeli tanks and troops.

Anger and frustration are mounting on both sides, and there is little optimism that Secretary of State Colin Powell can resolve the crisis in the few days he is in Israel. But Israeli strategic analyst Yossi Alpher said Mr. Powell must make some headway toward reviving cease-fire negotiations.

"He has to come with determination to see it through, and he has to come with the presidential authority to, so to speak, bang heads together to pressure both sides, to invoke presidential pressure, to invoke pan-Arab pressure in order to oblige both sides to sit down and make the necessary compromises," Mr. Alpher said.

Palestinian officials warned they would boycott Secretary Powell's visit if he did not meet with Yasser Arafat.

Israel has agreed to let Mr. Arafat's top aides consult with him prior to Mr. Powell's visit. The U.S. diplomat is also expected to travel to Ramallah for talks with the Palestinian leader.

Bethlehem University Rector Manuel Hassassian said Israel's siege of Mr. Arafat has not rendered him irrelevant as Mr. Sharon had hoped.

"By doing this to Arafat it is unfortunate that the United States and Israel do not see that by doing this to Arafat they are turning Arafat into not only a Palestinian hero, but an Arab hero, a world hero, a champion of freedom. Instead of discrediting him, they are giving him credit," Mr. Hasassian said.

Palestinian and Israeli analysts agree that Mr. Sharon's latest offer to meet with Arab leaders to talk about peace is no substitute for direct talks with the Palestinians and Mr. Arafat, who is their elected leader.

Mr. Hasassian said Mr. Powell has to take into account Palestinian anger over Israel's latest offensive in the West Bank and fear of a long-term military presence. He said it will be hard to broker a cease-fire that is not linked to political negotiations to end Israeli occupation.

"If you think he can kill or put in prison all these suspects, does he think the Palestinian issue will die? No, I think all these acts that are being committed against the Palestinians are creating more resentment, more lack of trust and more fear and more irrational behavior in the future. It is not going to help," Mr. Hasassian said.

At the same time, analyst Yossi Alpher says Secretary Powell has to factor in the political power of an Israeli public that has been traumatized by a dozen deadly suicide bombings attacks last month alone.

Mr. Alpher, who co-edits an internet-based Israeli-Palestinian dialogue Bitterlemon, said both sides are waiting for Mr. Powell to signal a more direct U.S. involvement.

"Is this visit going to be a genuine departure in terms of signaling a much deeper involvement, in terms of American readiness, something hinted at by the Bush administration, to integrate political issues with some security issues to persuade the Palestinians to move ahead. Or is this going to be a relatively short-term stop-gap visit to achieve some sort of peace and quiet for a relatively limited period of time," Mr. Alpher said.

For now, Mr. Alpher said both Israelis and Palestinians are taking a wait-and-see attitude.