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Despite the Israeli government’s blatant attempt to undermine the visit of United States Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region and Israel/Palestine, this visit marks a significant renewal of American diplomatic efforts to replace the ongoing violent confrontations between Palestinians and Israelis with peaceful negotiations. Israel has already aborted that American initiative in different ways, but primarily through its official declaration that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will discuss the roadmap and offer Israel’s position at his meeting with US President George W. Bush on May 20. That leaves Colin Powell and his visit hanging in mid-air. Without Israeli acceptance of the roadmap and willingness to begin implementation, the exercise of Colin Powell’s trip to launch the plan’s implementation has become meaningless.

That is, of course, in addition to the extraordinary Israeli escalation of pressure on Palestinians, which seems to be aimed at inviting violent Palestinian reactions. At this opening for peace, Israel has increased its military operations and ended up killing more Palestinians; tightened the closure on Palestinian towns and villages that is daily damaging the internal infrastructure; and continued and escalated illegal settlement expansion and confiscation of Palestinian land through the project of the separation/apartheid wall. Palestinians cannot be convinced that Israel is ready to abandon its occupation when all they see around them is the occupation’s physical consolidation.

The Palestinian Authority, for its part, has been trying to act positively towards this American-proposed plan that was accepted as the Quartet roadmap. At the same time, the Palestinians have been repeatedly explaining that this roadmap will have a chance of success and implementation only if Israel accepts it with no conditions or changes, and expresses willingness to begin serious implementation as per each side’s obligations.

Thus, if this visit of Colin Powell were to mark the beginning of comprehensive American involvement and renewal of peace efforts, then it might be a positive sign. However, if Israeli stalling and other tactics of avoiding engagement over this document succeed in frustrating American Middle East diplomacy, then it is likely that the coming period until after the US elections will witness a continuity–if not an increase–in the violence and suffering of both Palestinians and Israelis.

The irony here is that while the Americans are dealing with the Middle East as integral to their foreign policy, Israel is dealing with US Middle East involvement as if it is a game of internal American politics. Even though the Americans have sent Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region, Israel has dodged real engagement with him and is dealing instead with US official Elliot Abrams in secret meetings before Powell’s arrival, and conferring with White House officials after Colin Powell leaves. All the while, Israel is influencing US policies in the region by lobbying the US Congress to pressure the Bush administration by signing petitions that will discourage it from moving forward with the roadmap. Perhaps this meddling explains why even President Bush, while giving a key May 9 address on the Middle East, could not bring himself to utter the name of the roadmap.

Mr. Ghassan Khatib is a Palestinian political analyst and director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.

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