U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is arriving in the Middle East in an effort to convince Israel and the Palestinians to follow what is being called the road map, a peace plan designed to end more than two-and-a-half years of bloodshed and bring a permanent settlement to the bitter Arab-Israeli conflict.
Following the war in Iraq, the Bush administration is renewing its attention to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The key new element in the effort to end the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation that erupted in September 2000 is the road map, developed by the so-called quartet which includes the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer says Secretary Colin Powell's initial goal during his visit to the Middle East is to launch the road map. "The President is hopeful that the secretary's visit to the Middle East, the secretary will find a willingness from the parties to take the first steps down the road that the road map outlines," he says. "It is very important for the Israelis, for the Palestinians, for the Arabs to recognize that this is now a moment to seize and the secretary is going to the Middle East to help them to seize it."
Palestinian leaders say they want the road map implemented without changes while Israeli officials have presented possible amendments to the plan.
The Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon, says the Jewish state will not accept the road map if it is imposed on the parties or threatens Israel's security. He says, however, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is prepared to make concessions for peace. "Indeed Prime Minister Sharon mentioned, not for the first time, for the last two years, every since he was elected prime minister, that we are willing for painful compromises," he says. "We are really meaning business, to really bring about peace. But not just a peace on paper, but a genuine peace with security, with stability, a peace for generations. This is what we would like to see, for that we are willing to make painful compromises."
David Makovsky, a senior analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the main threat to the success of the new peace initiative is the relentless violence between Israel and the Palestinians.
He says militant Palestinian groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades are likely to try to derail the peace process with more suicide bombings and other attacks. "If al-Aqsa continues and the bombs keep going off you can have a hundred road maps, we're not going to get beyond the first stop sign," he says. "Therefore, if the security element is not put in place we're going nowhere. So I think we shouldn't pop the champagne corks too early because we are just at the beginning."
Still Bush administration officials are pledging to make an unprecedented effort to make the road map a blueprint for peace in the Middle East.
Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, William Burns, says the end of the war in Iraq has set the stage for a new approach in the volatile region. "I think we also see a moment when some key Arab states; Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, are making clear their recognition of that moment of opportunity and also their determination to play a constructive role too. Again, there is going to be no substitute for American leadership in this," he says. "I think international efforts can be a very useful complement to that, the work of the quartet and our continuing efforts on those lines. But as the president has made clear, it is the United States that is going to have to show vigorous leadership here and that is what your are going to see from us."
It has been more than a year since Secretary Powell last visited Israel and the West Bank for talks with leaders from both sides.
During his last visit a female Palestinian suicide bomber blew herself up at a Jerusalem bus stop and, as it has many times before, the bloodshed eventually overwhelmed diplomatic efforts to stop it.
Now that about 3,000 people, more than two-thirds of them Palestinian, have been killed, U.S. officials are hoping all sides are ready to end the conflict and finally bring peace to the Middle East.