11 September 2001>News Stories>Powell Pledges New U.S. Role in Middle East

Powell Pledges New U.S. Role in Middle East
Patrick E. Tyler . NYTimes . 20 November

LOUISVILLE, Ky., Nov. 19 Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said today that the Bush administration after ten months of hesitation would send high-level envoys immediately to the Middle East to seek a cease-fire, restart negotiations and help set the terms for the creation of a "viable" Palestinian state and a more secure Israel.

His long-awaited speech represented the administration's first significant foray into the Middle East peace process. It did not lay out a specific framework for a peace settlement, but it did make clear that the United States now intends to exercise leadership in the area.

In a major address at the University of Louisville, Secretary Powell said the United States was "ready to contribute actively" to an observer force that could eventually monitor and verify a peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians.

The presence of such a force has been a longstanding Palestinian demand, but Secretary Powell gave no timetable for any American contribution to it.

He admonished the Palestinian leader, Yasir Arafat, to "arrest, prosecute and punish the perpetrators of terrorist acts" against Israelis. At the same time, he told Israel's leaders that the building of Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas "must stop" because it "cripples chances for real peace and security."

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell outlined a new American commitment to bringing peace to the Middle East on Monday in Kentucky.

In a broader message to the Arab world, Secretary Powell said Arab leaders "must make unmistakably clear through their own actions their acceptance of Israel and their commitment to negotiated settlement."

The reaction to the speech was generally positive. The senior Arab diplomat in Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the ambassador of Saudi Arabia, called the speech "positive" and "balanced."

Prince Bandar was among those Muslim dignitaries invited to the White House this evening by President Bush, who was the host at an evening meal to break the Muslim fast after sundown, and the Saudi official saw the event as another sign that Mr. Bush was seeking to balance his approach to the Arab-Israeli dispute.

Prince Bandar said he was "optimistic" that the Bush administration's new commitment "could be the beginning of something more important than we realize at the moment," but he expressed doubt that Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, wanted to see Mr. Arafat succeed in bringing Palestinian violence under control as that would bring a Palestinian state closer to reality.

Howard Kohr, head of the largest pro-Israeli lobbying organization, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said the most important point Secretary Powell made was the "sequence" of events leading to peace, meaning that Palestinian violence must first cease.

"You have violence and terror and incitement and that must end," he said, "and at that point in time, you can move into the political talks. I think that's what he signaled to the parties."

Palestinians, Secretary Powell said, "must eliminate any doubt, once and for all, that they accept the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state. They must make clear that their objective is a Palestinian state alongside Israel, not in place of Israel, and which takes full account of Israel's security needs."

Secretary Powell avoided giving details of what form a peace should take, despite pressure from some aides, and he did not indicate what leverage the United States was prepared to exert over Mr. Sharon or Mr. Arafat to end 14 months of violence that has undermined the peace process that President Bill Clinton had treated as a higher priority.

Still, Secretary Powell said, the Bush administration was jumping in to "prod" and "push." A number of experts said it is premature for the Bush administration to lay out suggestions for the shape of a final settlement when it is not even certain that either side sees the other as a sincere negotiating partner.

Nonetheless, Secretary Powell announced that Mr. Sharon and Mr. Arafat both have recreated "senior-level" committees to work on implementing a cease-fire with former American commander of forces in the Middle East, Anthony Zinni, and William Burns, the assistant secretary of state for the Middle East. Both men were appointed as special envoys responsible for the Bush administration's peace efforts in the Middle East.

He said their "immediate mission" is "helping the parties achieve a durable cease-fire" and to then follow steps for a cooling-off period and confidence-building measures recommended by former Senator George Mitchell six months ago.

Those measures could set the stage for a return to the negotiating table to set the borders for a Palestinian state, define how Jerusalem would serve as a capital for both states and settle the claims of Palestinian refugees.

The greatest challenge for these American envoys appeared to be whether the American entry could sufficiently reduce the level of violence to meet the condition that Mr. Sharon has insisted on: seven days of calm before any talks on returning to the negotiating table could resume. Over the weekend, Mr. Sharon again insisted that such a period precede any return to talks on security with the Palestinians.

"We will do all we can to help the process along," Secretary Powell said. "We will push and prod. We will present ideas." But, in the end, he added, "both sides will need to face up to some plain truths about where this process is heading as they turn to the challenges of negotiating permanent status issues."

In a pointed message to Mr. Arafat, Secretary Powell said: "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." More pointedly, he added, "The Palestinian leadership must arrest, prosecute and punish the perpetrators of terrorist acts."

To the Israelis, he said: "Palestinians need security, as well. Too many innocent Palestinians, including children, have been killed or wounded. This too must stop."

The delivery of this address, which was prepared and then postponed when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 put off the United Nations General Assembly session, reverses an early Bush administration approach to the Middle East.

Secretary Powell, in recent statements, has indicated that the administration has absorbed the lesson that without American involvement, violence prevails. Mr. Bush came to office determined to avoid a muscular American role like the one pursued first by his father after the Persian Gulf war and then by Mr. Clinton.

In 1991, former President Bush convened the Madrid peace conference in fulfillment of a commitment to Arab nations who joined the international coalition that ejected Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

The Madrid conference, and the Oslo accords that followed in 1993, significantly advanced the negotiating terms for a final settlement on a homeland for Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories in the West Bank and Gaza.

But the momentum of the Madrid and Oslo peace initiatives foundered for many reasons, including government changes in Israel and a rising tide of extremism among Palestinians.

"The key thing is that this speech resolves the debate in this administration of whether the United States can have a foreign policy without engagement in the Middle East peace process," said Stephen P. Cohen, a scholar at the Israel Policy Forum.

A former American ambassador to Israel, Samuel Lewis, said Secretary Powell conveyed a sense of "great activism and determination." He said that after months of trying to manage the Arab-Israeli dispute with telephone calls and statements from Washington, "appointing a senior person who really stays out there and keeps their feet to the fire and gets them back to table" was a tangible step forward.

In the address, Secretary Powell sought to capitalize on the administration's initial success in driving the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. One message from the Sept. 11 terrorist assault on the United States, he said, was that, "American leadership in foreign affairs has never been more important."