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Friday, 12 April, 2002, 17:05 GMT 18:05 UK
Analysis: Powell runs into trouble
Israeli PM Ariel Sharon (left) with US Secretary of State Colin Powell
Powell will keep trying to reach agreement with Sharon
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By Barnaby Mason
BBC Diplomatic Correspondent

Several hours of talks in Jerusalem failed to produce agreement between the American Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, on how long Israel's military operations in Palestinian towns should last.

The most Mr Sharon would say was that he hoped Israel would soon conclude what he called its war on the infrastructure of terror.

Casualty in Jerusalem suicide bombing
Powell defended Israel's right to respond to attacks
Mr Powell said he would go on trying to reach agreement.

Shortly after their news conference, another suicide bomb attack in Jerusalem underlined the intractable nature of the conflict - even if it tended to undermine the Israeli Government's argument that its offensive was curbing Palestinian violence.

It was striking that Mr Powell did not repeat President Bush's call for an immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces - a demand also made by the United Nations Security Council.

A week ago, Mr Bush abandoned his policy of not getting directly involved and put his prestige and authority on the line.

His words to Israel could hardly have been more plain: "Withdraw, without delay."

Israeli defiance

Now, Washington seems to have accepted that this will not happen. It is a damaging rebuff for Mr Bush, one that raises various questions.

Yasser Arafat
Arafat: Also under US pressure
Did Mr Bush really believe Ariel Sharon would comply? Did he not think ahead to what American action might be required if Mr Sharon defied him? Or did he never intend the demand to be taken literally?

The Bush administration is still sending mixed messages. A few hours before Mr Powell arrived in Israel, the White House said the president believed Mr Sharon was a man of peace.

Mr Powell himself defended Israel's right to respond to terrorism - Washington agrees with that description of Palestinian suicide bomb attacks.

Palestinian action

But he also hinted at criticism by asking how they could get beyond such a response and back on to a track leading to a political settlement.

Peace protesters call for more US action
The US may consider more drastic action
The matter is not closed. Agreement on the duration of the Israeli offensive would be an achievement of sorts to mitigate the effect of Israel's defiance of Mr Bush.

Mr Powell is making demands of Yasser Arafat too, still under siege in his headquarters in Ramallah.

He was expected to insist that Mr Arafat issue an unequivocal call to his own people, in Arabic, for an end to the suicide bombings.

But before their meeting, Mr Powell said it was action that was important, not just rhetoric going out into the air with no effect.

It does not appear that he has much in the way of incentives to offer the Palestinian leader as a result of his talks with Mr Sharon.

Deeper involvement?

The Bush administration has many fundamental doubts about Mr Arafat as a negotiating partner for the Israelis - it is just that it cannot think of anyone else.

A destroyed Palestinian home in Balata refugee camp
The US seems to have accepted Israel will not "withdraw, without delay"
If Mr Powell's mission fails, there is speculation that Washington may consider more drastic action. Cutting ties with Mr Arafat would fall into that category, as would exerting real pressure on Mr Sharon.

Some advocate jumping ahead to the creation of a Palestinian state, more or less imposing it on both sides. That would probably involve the deployment of American troops to police the deal.

It has to be said that none of this seems likely at present. But getting involved, as the United States has now done, simply produces pressure to get more involved.

Whatever the next steps may be, Mr Bush and his advisers may well not have thought them through.

See also:

12 Apr 02 | Middle East
Israel stalls over troop withdrawal
12 Apr 02 | Middle East
Netanyahu talks tough to US
12 Apr 02 | Middle East
UN chief wants international force
12 Apr 02 | Middle East
Palestinian society lies in ruins
11 Apr 02 | Middle East
Jenin after the battle
11 Apr 02 | Middle East
Israel steps up Palestinian arrests
10 Apr 02 | Middle East
Jerusalem's deserted streets
11 Apr 02 | Middle East
Arafat 'not a partner for peace'
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