— To the question of what repercussions the failure of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s mediation mission will have, the Palestinians respond with a single word: a “catastrophe”

Officials close to Sharon said: “True, it is a catastrophe, but the disaster is the Palestinians’, who did not accede even to Powell’s entreaties that they issue a statement about their willingness to stop the fire”.

In any event, the nightmares of the Bush administration, which refrained from dirtying its hands in the Israeli-Palestinian dunghill for its first 15 months in power, came true all at once.

Bush was made aware of the limits of the American President’s power, even when it comes to Israel — a country that is supposed to act according to his expectations. Sharon did not accept Bush’s demand that he withdraw the troops from the West Bank cities “without delay”

Yesterday a high-ranking official from the Clinton administration was quoted by the Washington Post saying that Bush had erred when he pointed his finger at Sharon. The official said that Bush should have coordinated his ultimatum with Sharon before threatening him.

Bush also failed to take into account the fact that his supporters in the American Right are not prepared to pressure Sharon. As far as they are concerned, the bad guy in this story is Arafat and not Sharon. Sharon maintained more than just eye-contact with his allies in the White House and the Pentagon the entire time Powell was here.

Powell also received a tough lesson in the behavior of the Arab heads of state in the area. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak refused to meet him yesterday as scheduled, claiming to be “sick”.

Mubarak expected Powell to pressure Sharon and to force him to bend. When he saw that Powell was unable to cow Sharon he preferred not to be seen in his company. Powell learned that Mubarak is not prepared to share responsibility for his failure.

The only achievement Powell succeeded in chalking up for the time being was a cooling of the tensions along the northern border and the reduction of the immediate danger of a war breaking out between Israel and Lebanon and Syria. The talks he held with Bashar Assad and leading Lebanese officials in Beirut bore fruit and Hizbullah withdrew from the areas that allowed it to heat up the border along the northern Golan Heights and southern Lebanon. The Lebanese army also began to take action to prevent Palestinians armed with Katyusha rockets from firing them at Israeli communities in the north.

“You Had an Excellent Interview”

On Monday evening the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem was turned into a satellite media center. A CNN team, headed by the network’s top interviewer, Wolf Blitzer, set itself up on the ground floor patio; another team from the British Sky network set itself up in the library on the first floor. Between the one interview and the other a phone call was received from President Bush. “I watched you, you had an excellent interview on CNN”, Bush said in a complimentary opening remark.

The two refrained from mentioning the mutual exchanges of blows between them after Sharon rejected the demand that Bush made a week ago to order the withdrawal of IDF troops from the territories occupied. One official closely affiliated with Sharon said that the phone call was geared to “clear the air” of any ill feelings.

Sharon, for the first time since the beginning of Operation Protective Wall, gave Bush a clear timetable for an IDF withdrawal from the Palestinian cities in the West Bank. “We will leave Jenin within three days, the IDF will withdraw from Nablus within six days, and within a week we won’t be in the West Bank, except for Ramallah and Bethlehem.”

Sharon told Bush that Israel was going to insist that the assassins of Minister Rehavam Ze’evi, who are hiding out in Arafat’s office in the mukataa in Ramallah, be turned over to Israel and that the wanted men who are holed up in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem be deported.

Bush demanded that Sharon commit again not to harm Arafat personally, since this was liable to undermine vital American interests in the region. Sharon pledged that Arafat would not be hurt. He did not promise that the IDF would not find a way of removing Ze’evi’s assassins and Fuad Shubaki, who is responsible for the PA’s military procurement, and bringing them to trial in Israel. Sharon also did not promise Bush that he would not expel Arafat from the territories in the event of a future large-scale terror attack. Sharon’s promised only not to physically do away with Arafat.

In the course of the conversation Sharon reiterated that as long as he was the prime minister of Israel, there would be no negotiations with Arafat. He said he would be prepared for Arafat to attend the international conference, should it be held, but warned: “We won’t talk to him”.

Bush said he was particularly concerned by the turn of events in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Sharon said that Israel was prepared to accept a number of proposals that had been made to resolve the problem, on one condition: that the Palestinians who are holed up in the church agree to leave the territories permanently for a third country that is prepared to accept them.

“School for Diplomacy”

Tuesday afternoon, on his way to a memorial ceremony for fallen soldiers, Sharon received a report about the arrest of Marwan Barghouti, the commander of the Tanzim in the West Bank.

The news immediately spread around the world. One senior White House official quickly called his counterpart in the Prime Minister’s Bureau and said a single word: “Congratulations”

The question of Barghouti’s arrest did not come up even a single time in the conversations with Powell.

Powell’s aides tried for two days to get the Palestinians to make some sort of public statement about their willingness to embrace a cease-fire. Arafat and the other members of the Palestinian leadership refused. They demanded a complete Israeli withdrawal from all territories seized as an initial condition for a public statement.

Sharon refused all attempts to get him to co-sign an American document that he believed rendered the work plan set out by CIA Director George Tenet sterile. Sharon said to Powell that Arafat can talk to his people and demand that there be an end to terrorism, that his security forces are capable of acting, and other such familiar arguments.

Then Powell went to the Palestinians and hoped to leave the region with a joint American-Palestinian document, at least. But he failed to achieve that either. At the press conference he convened yesterday to wrap up his visit, Powell said that he had not failed. The term “cease-fire” was simply irrelevant for now. He said that a cease-fire could have been declared, but with the military operation still underway in the backdrop that would have been meaningless. He said that his goal was to achieve a genuine cease-fire and not only a declaration of a cease-fire.

In the meantime, Powell said, Arafat has to take action to end terror, and the Israeli people and leadership have to ask themselves if the time has not come to put an end to the settlements and the occupation, which have a destructive impact.

Powell then left the region, acting on the first advice that diplomats receive in their training: In the event of failure declare a partial success and issue a statement that you are leaving your deputy or staffers behind for continued negotiations over the details. Powell announced that he was leaving here Bill Barnes, the undersecretary for Middle Eastern affairs, and that Tenet would be coming in later on. Powell also intends to return to the region shortly. Don’t hold your breath.

The Moment of Failure

Ma’ariv (p. 1) by Oded Granot [news analysis] — People who took part in yesterday’s meeting in Ramallah reported that Arafat could barely control himself. Secretary of State Powell demanded that he hand over the murderers of Minister Ze’evi, arrest suicide bombers and announce an end to the violence in his own voice, while at the same time Powell gave Sharon the green light to continue the military operation.

And as if that were not enough, when Arafat asked Powell to guarantee that Israel would not forcefully break into the mukataa in order to remove Ze’evi’s killers along with Fuad Shubaki (of the Karine-A affair), Powell told him, according to one participant, that he could not promise that that would not happen.

The conversation with Powell, which in essence signaled the failure of Powell’s mission to bring about a cease-fire, angered Arafat so much that it extracted from him for the first time a public statement that revealed the depth of the distress caused by his prolonged isolation. “Is it conceivable that I not be allowed to leave through this door?” he asked, adding a warning that the continuation of his house arrest in Ramallah could “undermine stability in the Middle East”, as he explicitly put it.

The fate of Powell’s mission was sealed as a failure the moment Arafat rejected all of his demands and the moment Sharon announced that he needed a little more time before pulling the IDF out of Nablus and Jenin. In a press conference in Jerusalem yesterday, the Secretary of State made clear that under these circumstances there is still no room to discuss a cease-fire.

Sharon’s associates are convinced that the US well understands that there is no chance of an agreement with Arafat even if he were to sign one, and that there is no chance that a cease-fire would hold, even if he were to declare one in his own voice. America, according to the prime minister, is facing a serious problem as its embassies throughout the Arab world are attacked by masses of protesters and the US’s Arab friends call on it to increase pressure on Israel. Mubarak canceled his planned meeting with Powell yesterday as an expression of protest that Powell had not pressured Israel enough and had not forced Sharon to pull out of the territories immediately.

Washington understands that the failure of Powell’s mission could herald the escalation of the violence on the ground. The US solution is to create the appearance of activity, or in other words, to create the impression that despite the failure there is still some movement. This, they hope, might help calm things down.

This appearance of activity made up of two parts: Tenet’s return to the region in ten days time, despite the fact that he does not really want to come, and the creation of a flurry of media coverage surrounding the idea of a regional or international summit that was born between Sharon and Powell.

Palestinians Furious: “Bush and Powell Can Go to Hell”

Ma’ariv (p. 2) by Menahem Rahat et al. — There is one thing that Israel and the Palestinians agree about — American Secretary of State Colin Powell’s mission to the region ended in failure. Yesterday at the end of an extended mission and after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak canceled a scheduled meeting with him, Powell left the Middle East and returned to the United States.

Powell failed to achieve either a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians or a Palestinian commitment to act against terror. Powell’s final meeting with Arafat was described by Yasser Abed Rabbo as a “catastrophe” who added: “We say to Bush and Powell — Go to hell!”

In a press conference yesterday, Powell called on Arafat to take action against terrorism and to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure. He accused Arafat of having misled the US and the entire world when he spoke about acting against terrorism.

The Palestinians said that the meeting yesterday in Ramallah was difficult and full of deep disagreements between Arafat and Powell. “At a certain stage Arafat was so angry that he left the room and, only after being persuaded by his friends, did he return to the meeting. The Palestinians say that Powell adopted clearly pro-Israel positions, served as an “emissary of the Israelis more than an emissary of the US” and overstepped his role as a mediator.

The Palestinians say that Powell demanded that Arafat turn over to Israel the assassins of Minister Rehavam Ze’evi and the armed activists in the Church of the Nativity. Arafat rejected this demand outright and said that there would be no talk of a cease-fire or of any other arrangement before the Israeli troops withdrew from PA territory. Arafat was also furious about the continued siege that was clamped on him in Ramallah. He later asked journalists: Does it seem reasonable to you that I can’t walk out this door. He added that that would have repercussions for the situation in the Middle East.