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Dipolomatic Challenge: Colin Powell’s Trip

April 10, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: After a stop in Jordan tomorrow, Secretary Powell is due to arrive in Jerusalem tomorrow night. Now for an inside view of the Powell mission, we go to Todd Purdum, chief diplomatic correspondent for The New York Times, who’s traveling with Secretary Powell. I spoke with him by phone late today. Todd, what do Powell and his people think they really got out of today in terms of something that’s practical, something they can really use when they confront Arafat and Sharon?

TODD PURDUM: Well, Margaret, I think they thought they got a very strong statement of unity of purpose from European allies who have been clamoring for American action on the Middle East; from Russia, which, after all, was the nation that for much of the modern era was a strong ally of the Arab cause in the Middle East and was often at odds with America and Israel; and from the United Nations, which has also been pressing for stronger action against the current situation. So I think Secretary Powell was very pleased with that.

At the same time, he arrived in a Europe that today saw the European parliament pass a resolution non-binding calling for an imposition of economic sanctions, trade sanctions on Israel, and it’s a very tense situation here. But I think given that, he was very pleased with his strong statement of support for his mission.

MARGARET WARNER: And how dismayed were he and his people by the European parliament’s move today, at least calling for sanctions. Did they try to head that off in any way?

TODD PURDUM: I don’t know that they made any effort to head it off because it’s non-binding, and both they and Spanish and European Union officials who spoke here today downplayed the possibility that any sanctions would actually ever be imposed. European governments are divided about whether they should be, and Secretary Powell said that the focus now should be on an effort to get the Israelis to withdraw, get the Palestinians to stop terror violence, and get the parties back to the negotiating table. And that’s what the Europeans said here, too.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, we just heard Secretary Powell say that he didn’t think his mission was in jeopardy, but Sharon’s defiant words today had to be dismaying for him and his people.

TODD PURDUM: It makes it terribly difficult, Margaret, because at long last, President Bush and Secretary Powell have put the full prestige of the American government behind this effort. The Israelis have continued to resist the strongest possible calls from Washington for withdrawal. He is arriving in Israel late tomorrow night, and if some meaningful sign of substantial withdrawal has not begun by then, I think it will make for an awfully delicate and possibly tense conversation with Prime Minister Sharon on Friday morning. It’s not the predicate that the Americans were hoping they’d find when they got to Israel.

MARGARET WARNER: And what impact do they think the latest suicide bombing, the first one in a week, has on the prospects of getting any kind of movement from the Israelis?

TODD PURDUM: Well, privately they’re obviously pessimistic about it. It’s a very grim situation. They know it. At every moment in the past when progress has seemed possible, not only was there another suicide bombing or a series of bombings, there were bombings that bore the earmarks of a planned and plotted attack. And that’s… that’s just very difficult for anybody to overcome, and it’s the big wildcard, frankly, in this diplomacy effort by Secretary Powell. It’s the one variable that he can’t control at all, except by making pleas to stop it.

MARGARET WARNER: Now earlier in this week, the last couple of days, of course he was meeting with these moderate Arab leaders, he did not get the public denunciations of suicide bombing that he said he’d hoped for. First of all, did they really think they’d get these Arab leaders to say that publicly? And secondly, did they… did he at least get any private assurances that they would be privately urging Arafat to cooperate with Secretary Powell?

TODD PURDUM: I think, Margaret, it’s safe to say he got private expressions of gratitude and support that Washington is engaged in the process. I don’t know that he… you could say that he got private assurances they would work with Arafat. I think he did get both public and private assurances that if this process moves along, if American moral pressure on the situation causes the Israelis to withdraw and causes the situation to stabilize, and causes a cease-fire to occur, then I think the moderate Arab leaders were optimistic that they could bring pressure to bear to stop terrorist violence.

It’s one of these situations, as Secretary Powell said yesterday, in which people have been struggling for weeks and months, and even years, to get the sequence right. The Israelis say they won’t do this if the Palestinians won’t do that, and vice versa, and he made a frank plea yesterday for everybody to stop worrying about the sequence, stop setting preconditions, and just get down to business.

MARGARET WARNER: He… I noticed today when he talked about meeting with Arafat, he did also talk about other Palestinians. Do the Americans hold out any expectation that they can really deal with anyone other than Arafat?

TODD PURDUM: Well, I think some officials in the Bush administration hold a greater hope for that possibility than Secretary Powell does. He, like others, wants to build bridges to all the Palestinian leaders he can. I think he wants to have relations with all Palestinian parties who might eventually find themselves in a position of power. But Secretary Powell has been at the leading edge of those officials who say, frankly, that there is no other, at the moment, designated leader of the Palestinians other than Yasser Arafat. And he may be a devil in many people’s eyes, but he is the one we know. And moreover, he is the one, that– as Secretary Powell said today — Arab states and fellow Palestinians feel is the person who must be the negotiating partner with Israel. Now, it’s very difficult because Prime Minister Sharon has taken more and more aggressive steps to isolate Yasser Arafat, to say that he’s untrustworthy, to say that he’s a spent force who can’t be relied upon in peace negotiations. And that leaves Secretary Powell in a very delicate situation indeed.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Todd Purdum, thanks a lot.

TODD PURDUM: Thanks, Margaret.