By most any benchmark, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's Middle East peacemaking mission was far from successful.
And if one uses what most observers consider the most important benchmark -- achieving an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire -- then the mission was a distinct failure.
Powell tried to put the best face on his mission, which ended Wednesday with virtually no concessions from Israel or the Palestinians.
"I came here not knowing how long Israel's military operation in the West Bank would last," Powell said. "I leave here able to say to the president, 'It wasn't immediate, but it is now coming to an end.'"
Noting that Israel had promised to withdraw its troops from the West Bank within a week, Powell appealed to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to halt violence and arrest terrorists.
"I have made it clear to him the world is waiting for him to make a strategic choice and lead his people away from violence," Powell said after meeting Wednesday with Arafat for about two hours. Before the meeting, Arafat said in an interview that Powell's week-long mission had failed because Israel had not withdrawn troops from the West Bank.
Powell returned to Washington via Cairo, where Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak canceled his meeting with Powell. Egyptian officials would not say why. Instead, Powell met Wednesday with Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Maher, and Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher. According to Powell, he was holding the lower-level meeting because Mubarak was "indisposed."
Powell said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns will remain in the region and U.S. Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni will return. Powell said he would also come back himself, but he gave no timetable. A senior U.S. official, however, said Powell planned to return to the region "next month." He added that President Bush was willing to send CIA Director George Tenet to the region to work with both sides on the issue.
Israelis marked its annual Remembrance Day for fallen soldiers and terror victims on Tuesday -- and Independence Day a day later -- amid uncertainty over the outcome of the bitter conflict with the Palestinians.
With Powell's departure Wednesday, there was little reason to believe there would be an improvement in the situation anytime soon. On Wednesday, Powell said that "'cease-fire,' is not a relevant term at the moment." Powell met for about one hour Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, their third session since last Friday.
In a move welcomed by the U.S. administration, Sharon said Monday that Israeli troops would withdraw from Jenin and Nablus within a week.
In an interview with CNN, Sharon said it would take longer for Israeli troops to withdraw from the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem, which he called more "problematic." He also dismissed Palestinian claims that Israel had carried out a "massacre," killing 500 Palestinians during fierce fighting last week in the Jenin refugee camp. Like other Israeli officials this week, Sharon said only several dozen Palestinian gunmen were killed in the fighting, which also claimed the lives of 23 Israeli soldiers.
In a move with broad repercussions, Israeli forces on Monday arrested Marwan Barghouti, head of the Palestinians' Tanzim militia in the West Bank. Barghouti, who is on Israel's wanted list for allegedly masterminding terror attacks on Israeli targets, was captured in an apartment in Ramallah.
A popular figure among Palestinians and secretary-general of Arafat's Fatah movement, Barghouti has been considered a possible successor to Arafat. He went into hiding when Israel launched its military operation in the West Bank. Sharon said Israel will put Barghouti on trial for supporting terrorism.
"This man is responsible for terrible acts of murder of hundreds of Israelis. He will be tried by the State of Israel," Sharon said in an interview with Israel Radio.
The Palestinians likely will argue against the legality of Barghouti's
arrest and will demand his freedom as a precondition for diplomatic progress -- and some say Palestinian terrorists will launch new attacks if he is not freed.
In a proposal aimed at breaking the diplomatic logjam, Sharon proposed to Powell that the U.S. convene a Middle East peace conference. Sharon proposed inviting leaders from "moderate" Arab states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco, along with Palestinian representatives. But Sharon's insistence that Arafat not be included has many observers saying the idea will prove a non-starter. The conference could be held in June in the United States, Sharon said.
Powell discussed Sharon's proposal during visits to Beirut and Damascus.
Also on Powell's agenda was his request that Lebanon and Syria rein in Hezbollah. Hezbollah has been launching daily cross-border attacks on Israel, which, Powell warned, could lead to an escalation of violence.
But Lebanese Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud described Hezbollah's cross-border attacks, which focus on the Shabaa Farms border region, as a legitimate resistance to Israeli occupation.
Hezbollah and the Lebanese government claim that the Shabaa Farms area belongs to Lebanon, but the United Nations has rejected the claim.
Meanwhile, Israeli troops briefly entered the West Bank city of Tulkarm on April 16 to round up wanted Palestinians. The army described the operation as "limited," and the troops withdrew after detaining several Palestinians.
Israel had pulled its forces out of Tulkarm and Kalkilya under heavy pressure from the United States to end its military operation in the West Bank.
Israeli security forces were on high alert as the nation marked Remembrance Day and Independence Day. The nation came to a standstill April 16 when a two-minute siren sounded in memory of fallen soldiers and those who died in terrorist attacks.
The siren was followed by ceremonies at 42 military cemeteries. Since the beginning of the Zionist settlement of Israel in 1860, 21,182 people have fallen defending the ideal of a Jewish state.
Since the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, 469 Israeli soldiers and civilians have been killed.
The transition to Independence Day celebrations was marked at a beacon-lighting ceremony the evening of April 16.
While many Israeli businesses, homes and cars were festooned with flags, public celebrations were expected to be subdued. Many Israeli cities had canceled the majority of public events because of the security situation.
But President Moshe Katsav, in an Independence Day message to Jewish communities abroad, expressed hope that Israel and the Palestinians could one day resolve their differences.
"On the 54th anniversary of the state of Israel, we are still fighting for our status and security," Katsav wrote.
"Palestinian terrorism is an epidemic which must be fought against with determination and international cooperation. We are fighting against terrorism with faith, determination and national unity.
"Despite all the difficulties, I believe that the Palestinians and we have common interests and can attain political settlements."
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