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Powell's Trip – a Start

Secretary of State Colin Powell returns from the Middle East without the formal agreements he had hoped for. It would be easy to say his mission failed.

But that would be shortsighted. The fundamental value of the Powell trip was to affirm that the US is again fully engaged in the region. What counts most, now, is persistent, high-profile follow-up.

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Mr. Powell got spongy cooperation from both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. The Israeli leader said withdrawal from Palestinian cities and villages, as demanded by the US, would come within a week or so. New Israeli operations were under way, however, even as Powell departed.

While Mr. Arafat condemned a specific act of terrorism against Israeli civilians (the prerequisite for talking with Powell), he refused to call on his people to cease all such activities until the Israelis withdraw.

The two sides appear to be too tightly gripped by violence to disengage themselves.

That's why the Powell mission, and other diplomatic initiatives to come, remain so important. They can create incentives for Palestinians and Israelis to look beyond the immediate trauma. The secretary emphasized that all parties he talked to, in the region and outside it, agreed on the necessity of moving toward a political solution.

The outlines of such a solution are clear to all – except, perhaps, the extremists, whose ability to veto positive steps with acts of violence must be taken away. That will happen only as leaders on both sides conclude they must resume, and sustain, negotiations on a two-state plan.

Arriving at that point has been made more difficult by the past two weeks of warfare. Charges of an Israeli "massacre" in Jenin must be investigated by an objective UN human-rights team. That, at least, should address this volatile issue and possibly defuse it. Evidence seized by Israel that allegedly shows Arafat ordered suicide bombings also needs to be assessed. Both sides have to be held accountable for these terrible excesses.

At the same time, the US – working with Arab states, the UN, and European allies – should vigorously pursue diplomatic avenues. An international conference, representing all parties, may prove useful. The Saudi peace plan remains on the table, as do earlier American plans.

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The US isn't capable of dictating terms to either side in this conflict. But it can be the crucial catalyst to keep a political process going – aimed, as Powell rightly said, at reducing violence, fostering renewed talks, and helping the Palestinians build a viable, peaceful state next to Israel.