Powell’s slow progress towards Israel and the Palestinian territories after the announcement of his mission by President Bush on 4 April left the impression that Washington’s claim to be concerned to see an immediate Israeli withdrawal was not genuine. As Powell weaved around the region, Israel prosecuted its devastating assaults on Jenin and Nablus. Humanitarian agencies have sharply criticised Israel’s refusal to allow them to carry out relief and rescue operations in the Jenin refugee camp, where many people are feared to be burried under the rubble. ‘This is a crisis; this is real devastation. We know that there are people trapped under the rubble,’ said Richard Cook, head of UN relief operations in the West Bank, on 17 April. Israeli forces were also still surrounding the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem as Powell flew home.

Powell sought to present his mission as the first stage in a process that is focused on securing a final peace settlement, rather than an exercise in securing a ceasefire as an end in itself. ‘There are three elements in this comprehensive strategy,’ he said. ‘First, security and freedom from terror and violence for Israelis and Palestinians; next, serious and accelerated negotiations to revive hope and lead to a political settlement; and third, economic humanitarian assistance to address the increasingly desperate conditions faced by the Palestinian people.’

Powell placed at the top of his priorities the demand for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to take decisive action to stop violence from the Palestinian side. ‘In my meetings with Chairman Arafat I made it clear that he and the Palestinian Authority could no longer equivocate,’ he said.’They must decide, as the rest of the world has decided, that terrorism must end.’ The severity of his comments towards the Palestinian leader was in stark contrast to Powell’s acquiescence in the prevarication of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the face of Bush’s calls for an immediate withdrawal.

When asked about this point, Powell gave a series of vague and rambling answers giving the impression that he had little or no leverage over the Israeli leader. ‘The President wanted to see an immediate withdrawal, and, for reasons that we don’t need to go into in detail here, that did not happen,’ he said on 17 April, ‘.even though it wasn’t as quickly as we would have liked, it is now, according to what the prime minister said to me and said publicly, it is under way.I take the prime minister at his word that he is going to conclude it in the next few days – a week or so from when he said it to me.’

Powell’s attempts to explain away his reluctance to press for a ceasefire also resulted in some convoluted syntax. ‘The specific term ceasefire has not quite the same significance as what actually happens as opposed to a specific term,’ he said on 16 April.

The broader point Powell appeared to be seeking to convey was that the primary focus should be on political objectives. In this respect, he went against Sharon’s wishes in meeting, twice, with Arafat, and he made clear that Sharon’s strategy of putting off a final political settlement with the Palestinians was unacceptable. ‘For the people and leaders of Israel, the question is whether the time has come for a strong and vibrant state of Israel to look beyond the destructive impact of settlements and occupation, both of which must end,’ he said. He cited the peace initiative launched by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah as one of the most promising avenues for moving towards a comprehensive settlement.

During the Powell visit, Sharon announced his own proposals for an international peace conference, and even conceded that Arafat might be entitled to attend such a gathering. This move was interpreted by the Israeli daily Haaretz as being intended mainly to outflank his uneasy coalition partners in the Labour Party. By pronouncing himself in favour of peace negotiations, Sharon has implicitly recognised Labour’s demand for a ‘political horizon’, even if the gesture is empty of content.

There is also an internal political dimension to the Powell mission. The inability of the secretary of state to carry out Bush’s instructions has diminished Powell’s status, and this can only serve to strengthen the hand of the hardliners in the administration, notably vice-president Dick Cheney and deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz. The hardliners are inclined to the view that Arafat should be replaced, and are intent in pressing ahead with military operations to remove President Saddam Hussein of Iraq.