The Mideast: Powell's Visit Won't Shut "The Doors of Hell"

Sari Nusseibeh, the top Palestinian leader in Jerusalem, doesn't look the part. He dresses in blue corduroys and a tweed jacket and wears his hair in a Kennedy-like coif. Nusseibeh has long been a lonely Cassandra warning the Palestinians that the dirty war they are waging against Israelis would lead to disaster, not the end of occupation. To set a nonviolent example, Nusseibeh leads the mildest of demonstrations each afternoon at the Damascus Gate, the medieval entrance to Jerusalem's old city. "We have, how do you say it, been shooting ourselves in the foot," he says.

Many Palestinians would disagree with Nusseibeh's moderate stance: They think Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's push into the West Bank has aroused worldwide sympathy for the Palestinian cause. The question now is whether the violence will spin out of control, despite the efforts of an alarmed U.S. and the region's players to avoid a downward spiral. Fighting between Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas and the Israelis threatens to widen into a regional war. And Arab governments are worried they could be undermined by rising anger over the Palestinians' plight. Anti-American and anti-Israeli protests have rocked capitals from Bahrain to Rabat. "The doors of hell have been opened up," Nusseibeh says.

They may not shut--ever. Most signs point to more confrontation, despite Secretary of State Colin Powell's mission to the region beginning on Apr. 8. On Apr. 10, eight Israelis died in yet another suicide bombing, and Sharon vowed to continue his operation in the West Bank. Israeli analysts say there is no chance of negotiating a peace settlement any time soon, even if Sharon makes some conciliatory gestures to Powell. The U.S. may not understand "how much Israeli politics has changed; there is willingness to support Sharon and defy the U.S.," says Gerald M. Steinberg, a political scientist at Israel's Bar-Ilan University.

Analysts also predict a tougher stance from Yassir Arafat, who has been under siege in Ramallah. "He is now a major hero in the Arab world," Nusseibeh says, reckoning Arafat may calculate that concessions would dull this new shine. The Palestinian Authority's Jerusalem Affairs Minister, Ziyadh abu Ziyadh, worries that Israel's crackdown could lead to a surge of revenge killings. "No one can guarantee there won't be more suicide bombings," he says.

But the U.S. badly wants calm between Israel and the Palestinians, in order to ease tensions with the Arabs and obtain their cooperation on a possible effort to oust Iraq's Saddam Hussein. The U.S. strategy is to persuade the Arabs to lean on Arafat to stop the violence. That's why Powell decided to visit Morocco, Egypt, and Jordan before meeting Sharon and Arafat. Powell also is offering carrots such as the possibility of international observers between the Palestinians and the Israelis--a move Arafat has long sought.

If the U.S. is able to get a ceasefire, other moves to generate momentum may be possible. The U.S. could propose a regional peace conference, taking up Sharon on his Apr. 9 offer to meet moderate Arab leaders. The recent fighting has obscured the fact that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah persuaded Arab states to back his proposal for a peace settlement.

While the U.S. and the Arabs may have changed their attitudes, there is little indication Sharon and Arafat have followed suit. "Both are convinced that violence serves their ends," says Nimrod Novik, a former Israeli peace negotiator. To overcome such stubbornness will require a high-profile engagement in the region on the part of a U.S. Administration that until recently considered such entanglement folly. But the alternative is Nusseibeh's doors of hell.

By Stanley Reed and Neal Sandler in Jerusalem, with Stan Crock in Washington

Edited by Rose Brady

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