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Diplomatic Mission: Colin Powell’s Trip

April 15, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Terence Smith has our update of the Powell diplomatic mission.

TERENCE SMITH: The Secretary of State took his mission to Lebanon where he asked that country’s leaders to help prevent a wider war in the region. But there was no talk of peace from thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese protesters who demonstrated near his meetings in Beirut. “Death to America,” they chanted. “Powell out.” Lebanon, Israel’s neighbor to the north, is dominated politically by Syria. It’s also home to the militant Hezbollah, which the State Department has labeled a terrorist group. Over the past two weeks, Hezbollah fighters have fired missiles into disputed territory along the Israeli border. Israel has responded in kind with warplanes. Today, Powell urged calm along the still-contested border known as the blue line.

COLIN POWELL: There is a very real danger of the situation along the border widening the conflict throughout the region.

TERENCE SMITH: Powell then flew to Syria, Hezbollah’s main financial backer. He asked Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his thoughts on “a way forward” to peace talks. Yesterday, despite Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s objections, Powell traveled to Arafat’s besieged Ramallah headquarters in an armor-plated car. In a three-hour meeting, the Palestinian leader complained about Israel’s offensive against Palestinian towns in the West Bank. He condemned the recent suicide bombings, but said he could do nothing to stop them until Israel withdraws from the West Bank. After the meeting, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Israel must take the first step toward peace.

SAEB EREKAT: I’m sure the Secretary saw the situation. I believe that once the Israelis complete their full withdrawal, and we will carry out our obligations.

TERENCE SMITH: Late today, Powell’s party returned to Jerusalem for more meetings with the Israelis, and a possible second encounter with Arafat.

JIM LEHRER: Earlier this evening, Terry talked to New York Times diplomatic correspondent Todd Purdum.

TERENCE SMITH: Todd Purdum, welcome.

TODD PURDUM: Hi, Terry.

TERENCE SMITH: This is now the ninth day of secretary Powell’s mission, and I know you were in three countries today. Things are moving fast. Can you tell us where it stands as of this evening?

TODD PURDUM: Terry, we began the day by going to Lebanon and Syria so that Secretary Powell could press officials there to try to rein in Hezbollah militia groups that have been launching rocket and mortar attacks over Israel’s disputed northern border with Lebanon. American and Israeli officials both fear that this could somehow spark a wider conflict that could engulf the whole region in what would really amount to a war. And he had hoped to go up there and do a little work on that today. In fact, when he got to both Beirut and Damascus, he heard an awful lot about the Israeli- Palestinian conflict that he’s been working on negotiating here– officials in both countries telling him that all of the problems in the region were linked, and that to make progress, he’d have to make progress in helping resolve the stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians.

TERENCE SMITH: When he went to Damascus, did he get any reassurances there, any suggestion that Syria might be helpful?

TODD PURDUM: He said officials told him in both countries that they’d do what they could. Frankly, this is something that the State Department has said “those officials have been telling us for a few weeks now.” He’s hoping that they will give support. It’s not exactly clear how much influence they can bring to bear. Iran is also active in supporting the Hezbollah, and Washington is hoping to– through other channels, since we have no diplomatic relations with Iran– exercise influence there as well.

TERENCE SMITH: We have some tape of the demonstrations that were going on in Beirut while he was there. Does that give the Secretary some sense of the passion in all of this?

TODD PURDUM: Yes, he was well aware of the demonstrations, although we did not see them as we left the airport in Beirut. In fact, every stop the Secretary makes– and I believe we have now hit seven countries on this trip– he feels the passion, sees the passion that people feel about this conflict that has so bedeviled the region. And he’s well aware of the tensions inherent in a the whole thing.

TERENCE SMITH: What’s the U.S. reaction to this idea that Prime Minister Sharon has put forward for an international peace conference on the Middle East? What do the American officials tell you about that?

TODD PURDUM: Well, of course, Terry, the sticking point there is that Prime Minister Sharon of Israel has said that such a conference could not include Yasser Arafat, with whom he refuses to negotiate. So secretary Powell today told us, on the way back from Damascus on his plane, that he thought a conference might involve foreign-minister-level officials. So Mr. Arafat, Mr. Sharon — neither one would have to come. He says the conference in and of itself isn’t a solution, but it’s a way to get the parties together and talking. And as this mission drags on with little signs of obvious progress, in fact it’s pretty clear that Washington is looking for an exit strategy to get Mr. Powell home, able to plausibly claim some forward motion, and a conference like this might be that sort of thing.

TERENCE SMITH: Indeed, because at this point, is there any reason to believe that he can achieve either a cease-fire or a political discussion?

TODD PURDUM: Not much at the moment, Terry. There’s still some hope. Mr. Sharon said tonight that Israel was preparing within a week or so to withdraw from most areas, but the Palestinians are still insisting on a full withdrawal before resumption of real talks on a cease-fire.

Mr. Powell’s whole mission in coming over here was to try to jump-start the process of political negotiations, get the parties talking together about the bigger questions that divide them, get security negotiations back on track. And in fact, although of course we’re not obviously sitting in the negotiating rooms, there doesn’t seem to be any progress of real note so far, and if there is, the State Department has been keeping it a big secret from us.

TERENCE SMITH: But I gather he’s certainly not giving up, and there’s talk, is there, of a possible second meeting with Yasser Arafat?

TODD PURDUM: There is– State Department officials telling us tonight that that is not by any means confirmed. Mr. Sharon expects to meet with Secretary Powell tomorrow. Wednesday, Israel will virtually shut down for the celebration of the 54th anniversary of its independence. So that’s not apt to be a business day, at least on the Israeli side.

There’s a lot of speculation we might get to go home in the next couple days, but Secretary Powell has also made it clear that he intends to stay involved in the Middle East, and in fact, President Bush’s speech sending him here implied a commitment to keep working this process, both from a distance and by coming back to the region.

TERENCE SMITH: Todd, I know from your piece in the paper that you were inside Yasser Arafat’s compound yesterday in Ramallah on Sunday. What’s it like?

TODD PURDUM: You know, it’s not quite as bad as we’ve been led to believe, and apparently that’s because the Israeli forces cleaned it up a bit on Saturday before Secretary Powell went to visit. It’s grim enough. There’s not enough water, not enough medical supplies, only a few mattresses that scores of people take turns sleeping on. It’s definitely a compound under siege, and the Israeli soldiers are stationed not 30 yards away from the front door, and they kept a watchful eye on Mr. Powell as he walked in under heavy diplomatic security guards.

TERENCE SMITH: Did you feel a sense of danger going there?

TODD PURDUM: You didn’t feel a sense of danger, but you felt a definite sense of tension. Israeli tanks pulled back just far enough to let the Secretary in. There were armored personnel carriers. The town of Ramallah itself, the streets were charred and ruined and torn up into chunks of mud. There was hardly any asphalt left on the streets. The dust was so thick, the drivers had to turn on their windshield washers to see their way through it.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, it’s quite a mission you’re on, and we appreciate you telling us about it. Todd Purdum, thanks very much.

TODD PURDUM: Thanks for having me, Terry.