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Sending In The First Team

CBS News State Department Reporter Charles Wolfson offers background and analysis in his regular Diplomatic Dispatch:


"He's going precisely because there's a feeling things are falling apart."

"It's more a matter of timing. Everyone has thought that it would be helpful and necessary that the secretary would have to follow up what ( CIA Director George) Tenet got done."

The first statement comes from someone who has followed the gyrations of Middle East peacemaking for many years, the second from a senior State Department official, referring to the cease-fire that Tenet negotiated. Take your pick on which statement comes closest to being the reason Secretary of State Colin Powell is heading back to the region next week.

The truth is, it's a bit of both. There is concern things will go from a very weak cease-fire - Israelis and Palestinians are still dying almost every day - to something far worse. It is also logical that Powell would go to the region to make his own assessment several weeks after Tenet's deal was put in place, with an eye toward moving from the security to the political phase of the process.

Egypt's Foreign Minister, Ahmed Maher El Sayed, told reporters in Washington this week "the cease-fire period is holding but it's shaky. There is a sense of urgency."


Click here to learn more about conflict in the Middle East.


In any case, the Bush administration, now in office five months, is finding out for itself one of the seemingly eternal truths of modern American diplomacy: making peace in the Middle East is not only a full-time job for those who do the detail work every day, it also consumes enormous blocks of time for the secretary of state and the president.

Middle East peacemaking, said former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, is like a garden - it needed constant tending.

Ambassador Dennis Ross, the former Special Middle East Coordinator, was fond of saying it was like riding a bicycle - if you stop peddling you'll fall off.

So now it's the Bush administration's turn to deal with the seemingly intractable issues which divide Israelis and Palestinians. In the first weeks after taking office, there was a concerted effort to do things differently than the Clinton team. There would be no special envoy, the CIA would lower the profile of its involvement in security-related issues and no more cozying up to Yasir Arafat with frequent invitations to the White House (he made 13 visits to see Mr. Clinton).

That was a fine strategy in the short term. Then events on the ground got in the way and forced the Bush-Powell team to re-evaluate their strategy. The Palestinian Intifada kept the pressure on Israel with more and more bombings and mortar attacks on Israeli civilians, the worst of which two weeks ago killd 21 Israeli teen-agers at a disco in Tel Aviv.

The Israeli response to the Intifada also caused Washington problems. Use of F-16s against Palestinian targets and watching the Israeli army go back into areas already turned over to the Palestinians did not sit well in Washington.

Enter former Sen. George Mitchell. Asked last fall by then-President Clinton to head an international committee to look at the situation, Mitchell produced a report that Powell latched onto as a roadmap to get back to peacemaking.

The Mitchell Committee's recommendations called for an immediate cease-fire, a cooling off period, confidence building measures from both sides and, finally, a return to the negotiating table. In other words, the Bush administration, given the changed circumstances, was not going to try for a grand, comprehensive peace. It would concentrate on a slower, step-by-step process with the short term goal of getting back to the negotiating table.

With the situation going rapidly downhill, and after being prodded by both sides, Mr. Bush decided to reverse himself and send CIA Director Tenet to the region. After a week of shuttle diplomacy, Tenet got agreement on a cease-fire.

Palestinian Minister Nabil Shaath, after meeting with Powell in Washington, said the U.S. goal now is to consolidate the cease-fire and "to move on and put a timeline to implementing the Mitchell report in all its aspects." In other words, move from security-related issues to the contentious political issues contained in the report like a freeze on Israeli settlements

Has the Bush administration been sucked into this? Not exactly, says one senior State Department official close to the situation. "That was a factor in the first month...but the administration had already started the process of getting more engaged." This official points to increased phone contact by the president and Powell with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. There was also the deal Tenet got and, of course, the release of the Mitchell Report.

The senior official says all of these factors allowed "the administration to do things the administration might not have been willing to do in February or March."

The Bush team has also heard from its Arab allies in the region. Foreign Minister El Sayed says "an active American role is very important." On his upcoming trip, Powell is expected to see Egypt's President Moubarek, Jordan's King Abdullah and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah.

Thus, for Powell, it's once more into the fray. This will be his second trip to the region since taking office and the only thing one can say with virtual certainty is that it will not be his last.

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