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Nabil Shaath is foreign minister of the new Palestinian government. He spoke from Ramallah with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels on May 12.

NATHAN GARDELS: How do you assess (U.S. Secretary of State) Colin Powell's visit to the region over the weekend?

NABIL SHAATH: It was another missed opportunity. I'm sure Mr. Powell came with enough goodwill to try to get things done. He is a decent man who has supported the "quartet" and the ideas of "road map" very early in the game. There is no reason to suspect procrastination on his part.

However, (Israeli Prime Minister) Ariel Sharon totally aborted Powell's trip by pulling the rug from under his feet, announcing that he will go to Washington to meet Mr. Powell's boss -- President George Bush -- on May 20. Sharon basically told Powell: Well, I'll talk to your boss when I see him and don't really need to discuss this with you. Sharon was able to delay everything. In short, he refused to move one step ahead on the issue of the "road map," guaranteeing another couple of weeks of bloodshed that could have been avoided.

On the Palestinian side, we did our part. We publicly endorsed the "road map" and already have implemented the first third -- the reform phase -- by writing a new constitution, empowering a prime minister, forming a new government, establishing systems for financial transparency and starting to reorganize our security apparatus.

The Israelis so far have refused to even recognize the "road map."

GARDELS: What, in your view, should Powell have achieved with the Israelis?

SHAATH: Three things: First, Israel should have announced acceptance of the "road map" so the time clock could start ticking. The "road map" itself contains a pro-forma statement that both Israelis and Palestinians announce immediately that they accept this plan.

Second, Israel should have agreed to establish, on the ground, a monitoring mechanism to determine responsibility for acts of violence from both sides.

Third, to get some confidence-building measures from the Israelis, for example, an end to targeted assassinations and an easing up on restrictions in the occupied territories to make the daily life of Palestinians less miserable. All Israel did was open the Gaza border crossing and close it two hours later.

So, when Powell came to see us and meet Prime Minister (Mahmoud) Abbas, he came naked. He had nothing to say.

GARDELS: Prime Minister Abbas will most likely meet with Sharon before Sharon goes to Washington to see Bush. What then will Abbas say?

SHAATH: He will say, "Mr. Sharon, we are ready for peace. Please do what we did. Accept the 'road map.' Let's go to our two publics with that statement of acceptance and open a new climate. After all, polls show that 70 percent of Israelis support the contents of the 'road map.' I pledge all my effort to make it work."

GARDELS: For more than 20 years Sharon has been saying there can be no peace with the Arabs unless a process of democratization starts across the region. Now Saddam has been overthrown by the Americans and British. Syria has been contained, perhaps defanged. The Palestinian Authority has now put in place an accountable structure of governance.

Isn't Sharon ready to deal now in a kind of Nixon-goes-to-China mode by, for example, dismantling settlements and agreeing to a viable Palestinian state?

SHAATH: I wish he would. I agree that this is the logic of the situation. We want him very much to do that. But so far, he has shown no indication of moving in that direction. Instead, he has thrown up obstacles to replace his old demand of democratization. He demands we forswear the "right of return" even before we start on the "road map." He demands we crush all the organizations of terror before anything can happen -- even when he knows that is impossible because he, not us, is in full occupation of the West Bank. As a result of this -- which he fully knows -- there is no meaningful Palestinian security apparatus to fulfill this demand. He knows full well that if we were to try to crush Hamas and Islamic Jihad with what little force we have, there would be massacres in the street.

What we need is to buy time to rebuild our public security organizations, which he crushed, and win back Palestinian public support that Sharon's actions has driven more and more into the arms of these groups.

GARDELS: Despite the enormous upheaval in the region caused by the American and British invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam, it seems little has changed in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

SHAATH: Theoretically, everything has changed. The so oft-repeated "existential threat" of Iraq to Israel has disappeared into the dust of American tanks tearing through the desert. Syria, as you say, has been contained. And Mr. Powell told us, "The president is going to invest 'Iraqi capital' (the political capital of victory -- editor) in the peace process for Palestine."

Also, theoretically, as you suggest, Sharon no longer has any great risks from the Arab world to worry about. His people accept the "road map" to peace. He thus has no excuse. And Mr. Bush has no excuse. So, let us see what happens in Washington.

(c) 2003, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 5/12/03)