PHILADELPHIA - Colin Powell finally gave his long-awaited speech on Mideast peace Nov. 19, but it's hard to figure out why he bothered.
The whole purpose of the speech - originally scheduled for mid-September but postponed after Sept. 11 - was to signal that the Bush team was ready for a serious try at restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Mr. Powell's speech was repeatedly delayed. Although the administration probably would have liked to let it die, the green light finally was given because our Arab allies were begging us to say something.
So it's not surprising that the final product was schizophrenic. The speech was powerful when it talked about the U.S. vision of a final Mideast peace - two adjacent states of Israel and Palestine (an idea endorsed by President Bush) - with clear Arab recognition of the legitimacy of the Jewish state. But Mr. Powell was downright wimpy when he described the role the United States was willing to play in helping both sides re-engage.
This is a serious policy mistake. America is winning the war in Afghanistan; Osama bin Laden is on the run. U.S. credibility in the region - credibility squandered after the Persian Gulf war - is once more rising. After the gulf war, Mr. Bush pere godfathered the Madrid talks, which led to the Oslo peace process. Now is the time for the second Bush administration to restart what his father began.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat blew a stellar chance to get a state and failed to stop a violent Palestinian uprising. This violence led to the election of Ariel Sharon, an Israeli who doesn't believe a final peace with the Palestinians is feasible and wants to preserve the occupation status quo.
America must get involved in Mideast negotiations because our national interest demands it. The violence between Palestinians and Israelis is inherently unstable.
"Eventually this small fire in the Middle East will explode to something big, and the potential is there every day," I was told by Yossi Beilin, the thoughtful Israeli politician who was the key figure behind the Oslo peace agreement. "If it explodes, the price will be so high, and the ability to extinguish it much lower."
No matter Mr. Arafat's mistakes, if Israeli occupation of 3 million Palestinians continues indefinitely, something terrible will happen. My two biggest nightmares: Palestinians will carry out a terrorist attack so heinous that Mr. Sharon would reoccupy the West Bank, causing untold casualties on both sides and putting Israel in an entirely untenable position. Or Israeli terrorists will succeed in what they tried and failed to do in the 1980s - blow up the Al Aqsa mosque, which would set the Arabs irrevocably against the Jewish state.
These nightmares don't have to become real. But I don't believe Israel and the Palestinians can back away from the abyss without firm U.S. intercession. And here is where Mr. Powell's speech failed.
He touched on the key points: Palestinian leaders must make a 100 percent effort to end violence and terrorism with concrete results, while Israelis must end the regime of checkpoints and settlement-building that chokes Palestinians. But he gave no roadmap for how to get from today's depressing reality to those goals.
The only new U.S. action will be to send two emissaries to the region, a midlevel diplomat and a retired general, Anthony Zinni, whose sole mission is to try to achieve a cease-fire. The aim will then be to follow the guidelines of the Mitchell plan, which calls for an end to violence, a "cooling off period" and confidence-building measures that lead ultimately to renewed peace talks.
But Mr. Powell, contrary to expectations, said nothing about the need to withdraw a proviso that Mr. Sharon added to the Mitchell Plan - the requirement that there be seven days of absolute quiet before a "cooling off" period. This requirement gives any Palestinian hothead the power to prevent progress.
Nor will any cease-fire be sustainable, as the Mitchell Report states, so long as Israel continues settlement activity on the West Bank. Yet Mr. Sharon has just ordered new construction to resume in one of the most militant Jewish settler enclaves in the middle of the West Bank city of Hebron.
U.S. political intervention at the highest level will be needed to get both sides to pull back from acts that undercut the prospects of moving back from shooting to talking.
This means a full-time mediator backed by the president's commitment. Short of that, Mr. Powell's vision will remain nothing but words.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.