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Tuesday, 23 October, 2001, 02:32 GMT 03:32 UK
Peres' US talks: Vital and complex
Palestinian gunmen
Mid East violence could endanger the US-led coalition
By Jon Leyne in Washington

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is due to meet his American counterpart Colin Powell on Tuesday afternoon.

In a sense, Mr Peres' visit to Washington is vital. In a sense it is an irrelevance.

Shimon Peres
Peres has always seemed a peripheral figure in Sharon's government
It is vital, because the deteriorating situation between Israel and the Palestinians could seriously endanger Washington's grand coalition against terrorism.

But it could be an irrelevance, because Mr Peres has always seemed a peripheral figure in the coalition government of Ariel Sharon.

That may sound a strange description for a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and architect of the Middle East peace process.

But the foreign minister's powerlessness has been amply demonstrated by the many times his prime minister has prevented him from meeting Yasser Arafat.

Add to that a growing rebellion by the Labour Party within the coalition, which has led the party's secretary general, Ranaan Cohen, to threaten their withdrawal from the government "if the escalation and inflammatory speech continue".

Complicated game

So in public, what are likely to emerge are more calls for restraint from Colin Powell, and more calls from the Israelis for Yasser Arafat to restrain the Palestinians.

Colin Powell
Powell is likely to call for restraint
Behind the scenes a more complicated game is playing out.

The Israeli Government is nervous that its interests might be sold out by the Americans, as the price for the coalition against terrorism.

Hence the recent comments by Mr Sharon warning of the dangers of "appeasement" - comments he swiftly withdrew.

For his part, Yasser Arafat is well aware of the danger of being caught on the wrong side in the war against terrorism.

His support for Iraq before and during the Gulf War was one of the most disastrous mistakes of his leadership.

Powell's challenge

Yet there must also be a suspicion that Mr Arafat also realises what a pivotal position he is now in.

Yasser Arafat
Arafat: Pivotal position
Whether or not he is directly responsible for the continued violence, in some ways it does increase his importance.

But the Palestinians also suspect Mr Sharon wants to take this opportunity to destroy the Palestinian Authority.

Meanwhile members of the Bush administration have let it be known they were planning a major peace initiative before it was derailed by the events of 11 September.

That is not about to happen now, but it is still contributing to the unease of the Israelis.

So Mr Powell's challenge will be to provide reassurance to the Israeli foreign minister, while putting strong pressure on the Israeli Government to moderate its actions.

See also:

23 Oct 01 | Middle East
Israel rejects US withdrawal call
18 Oct 01 | Middle East
In pictures: Israel mourns minister
17 Oct 01 | Middle East
Questions over Israel security failure
22 Oct 01 | Middle East
Watching the Palestinian night
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