Secretary of State Colin Powell defended the Bush administration's efforts in Middle East peace-making Thursday in the face of criticism from a ranking Senate Democrat that its preoccupation with Iraq has allowed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to slide into chaos. Mr. Powell blamed the current impasse on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his failure to curb terrorism.
The sharp exchanges on the Middle East punctuated an otherwise amiable Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing at which Mr. Powell defended the State Department's $31 billion budget request for the 2005 fiscal year.
West Virginia's Robert Byrd, the Senate's senior Democrat and an outspoken opponent of the war in Iraq, said U.S. involvement there has been a "terrible distraction" from efforts to combat terrorism and deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he suggested is the root of the problem.
Mr. Byrd said the U.S.-backed "road map" to Middle East peace - which he said was never really anything more than "words on paper", is for all practical purposes dead. And he said that neither Israelis nor Palestinians have any reason to believe that the Bush administration is going to expend any political capital to move the process forward anytime soon.
"Real progress was being made before this administration took office. But since that day, the situation has slid steadily backwards. Bloodshed has spun out of control. Hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths could have been avoided," he said. "This administration's disengagement from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a major impediment to what we're trying to do to promote democracy and combat terrorism in the Middle East."
Mr. Powell said the administration is not disengaged and said President Bush, like his predecessor Bill Clinton, has invested considerable personal effort in Middle East peace-making.
He said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is "perhaps the most difficult portfolio" to manage in U.S. foreign policy, and said it will remain so as long the Palestinians and in particular Yasser Arafat refuse to crack down against terrorism.
"The 'road map' is not dead and the president did invest considerable political capital in it. He went to Sharm el-Sheikh and he went to Aqaba last year," he said. "That was an investment of his personal prestige and the political energy of this administration. President Clinton invested enormous political capital, only to see it all come crashing down the last week of his administration because of the intransigence of Yasser Arafat. And the same problem that we have faced is Yasser Arafat, and his unwillingness to do what should be done, and what he believe can be done, to bring terror under control."
The Bush administration is sending a team of senior officials back to the region next week, on the third mission of its kind since the beginning of last month, for political soundings with both parties.
Mr. Powell said the U.S. team, consisting of Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, Deputy White House National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and White House Middle East policy chief Elliot Abrams, will try to see if Israel's recent proposal for vacating settlements in Gaza can be used, in his words, as a way, in his words "to get this thing going forward."
He said that would depend on what Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government is also planning with regard to the West Bank, and the route of Israel's controversial security barrier in that region. Another senior Democrat on the panel, South Carolina's Ernest Hollings, criticized Mr. Sharon's history of tough tactics toward the Palestinians, calling him the "Bull Connor of Israel", a reference to the Birmingham, Alabama police chief who used force to break up civil rights demonstrations in the 1960's.
Mr. Hollings said an international peacekeeping force should be deployed to separate Israel and the Palestinians, and said the only the United States and Israel oppose such a solution.