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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 May, 2003, 12:11 GMT 13:11 UK
Hope ebbs away in the Middle East

By Jon Leyne
BBC State Department correspondent

The road from Jerusalem to Jericho can be a crazy, scary ride. From the shining heights of Jerusalem, you wind and plunge your way down to the lowest point on Earth.

Of course when US Secretary of State Colin Powell took the road last weekend they closed most of the route for the motorcade.

Abu Mazen and Colin Powell
The US is staking a lot on the leadership of Abu Mazen
Regular travellers aren't so lucky. You might gather speed for a while, but then you find yourself stuck behind a truckload of chickens.

Or maybe you swerve out to overtake one of those over-sized Palestinian taxis, with six or seven people packed inside, and the roof rack overloaded with an absurd amount of luggage.

Just over halfway down, you pass a sign saying you are at sea level. But the road carries on down and down, past herds of wild camels, bedouin camped out in filthy shacks, through dirty barren brown hills.

Then suddenly it emerges from the hills and you are on the bottom, in the mind-numbing heat that cooks up at 400 metres (yards) below sea level.

(No metaphor there, then, for recent events in the Middle East.)

Oldest conflict on Earth

Not much newsworthy has happened in Jericho, since a certain well known (biblical) event a few thousand years ago. But this is where Colin Powell chose to meet the new Palestinian Prime Minister, Abu Mazen.

The Palestinian enclave was far enough away from Yasser Arafat's base in Ramallah to prevent the Americans' current bÍte noire from turning up uninvited, and introducing himself with his cheeky smile.

Jericho claims to be the oldest city on Earth, so what better place to discuss what feels like the oldest conflict on earth.

Being in Jericho, I'm sure the Palestinians like the idea that if they just make enough noise they can bring the walls of Israel tumbling down.

A girl walks past a sign in the town of Jericho on the eve of Colin Powell's visit
Jericho claims to be the oldest city on Earth
And there was something irresistible about a meeting held in a hotel mainly built to lure Israelis to shed their money in its casino.

How suitable it would be to conduct Middle East peace negotiations seated around a roulette wheel.

The Americans are staking a lot on the leadership of Abu Mazen. He's the man they hope will crack down on terrorism, cleanse the Palestinian Authority of corruption, and talk sense to the Palestinian people.

He's a grey-haired, quiet-looking gentleman. An academic, you'd think, or a bureaucrat. However well-intentioned, he's going to have a hard time competing with the charisma of Yasser Arafat.

According to the polls, Abu Mazen has the support of only 2% of the Palestinian people. Hardly a promising candidate to lead them to their dream of statehood.

But then if you are looking for Middle East peacemakers, the names George W Bush or Ariel Sharon hardly spring to mind either.

And while the cast list may have changed, a little, they do seem to be reading from an ominously familiar script. The Palestinian leadership call for political progress, while insisting they are doing everything possible to prevent violence.

Bush's mantra

The Israelis - Ariel Sharon at least - seem to treat Colin Powell almost with contempt.

In public together, Mr Powell and Mr Sharon are always suspiciously polite.

In private it sounds like it's all very different.

Apparently at their latest meeting, when Mr Powell suggested stopping the growth of Jewish settlements, Mr Sharon responded indignantly: "So you want settler women to have abortions?"

Colin Powell and Ariel Sharon
Mr Powell and Mr Sharon are always polite in public
He knows exactly how to play his right-wing American audience.

President Bush's mantra - dutifully repeated by Israelis and Palestinians - is that everything has changed in the Middle East following the victory in Iraq.

But it's hard to see precisely how Saddam Hussein's Iraq was an imminent threat, somehow preventing Israel from making peace with the Palestinians.

Mr Bush's other promise, or at least strong hint, before the war was that ousting Saddam Hussein would somehow reduce the threat of al-Qaeda terrorism.

That also seems to have been decisively proved wrong by the three ferocious suicide bombs in Saudi Arabia.

On the evidence of the last few days and weeks, the Americans are much better at making war than peace
Once again it's back to the harsh reality of chasing elusive terrorists and also, by the by, the reality of genuflecting before a Saudi Government royally detested by much of the Washington political establishment.

So the only thing that really seems new is the level of hubris on the American side, the feeling among some members of the Bush administration that they really can build a new Middle East.

The trouble is on the evidence of the last few days and weeks, the Americans are much better at making war than peace.

Beyond Jericho, the road across the baked plain of the Jordan valley leads through a series of weird rock formations.

Pillars and plateaus of what look like salt or sandstone stand isolated, as if they used to lie on the bottom of an ancient sea, before it was drained by a giant hand.

In fact that is roughly what did happen. The mighty Jordan river used to sweep through the middle of this valley. Over the years, its warring neighbours have plundered the precious water.

Now it's reduced to a feeble trickle.

Across the Middle East these last few days it's felt as if they drained away a little more of another vital essence, something simply called hope.

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