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State Dept. Says Bush Officials Hurt Powell’s Mideast Efforts

By Alan Sipress
THE WASHINGTON POST -- washington post

State Department officials say Secretary of State Colin Powell has been repeatedly undercut by other senior policymakers in his effort to break the Middle East deadlock, warning this has left U.S. diplomacy paralyzed at an especially volatile moment.

State Department officials say that Powell’s return from the Middle East a week ago with few concrete results has left them more discouraged than at any time since the Bush administration took office.

They partly fault what they said was the administration’s unwillingness to stand behind Powell, especially in pressuring Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to withdraw his forces from West Bank cities and hold accelerated talks with the Palestinians. Department officials said they continue to face objections as they seek to fashion a diplomatic initiative aimed at creating a Palestinian state.

Powell has displayed little public frustration. But his employees’ complaints, reflecting their own exasperation and deep loyalty to him, reveal the depth of divisions inside the administration, especially between the State Department and Pentagon.

Many in the State Department cite resistance to their diplomatic efforts coming from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has more of a voice in shaping Middle East policy than his predecessors.

The opinions of Rumsfeld and his key lieutenants, notably Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, figure prominently because the Pentagon has been given a seat at interagency discussions over the Middle East conflict. In recent years, the peace process was largely the purview of the State Department and the White House.

Rumsfeld and his advisers have advocated giving Sharon wide latitude to press his military operations, viewing the Israeli campaign as a legitimate war on terrorism. At the same time, they see little value in trying to engage Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in renewed negotiations.

Powell and his team have a different view. They sympathize with Israel’s need to defend itself, but worry that the unprecedented Israeli offensive is fostering greater Palestinian hatred and destroying the Palestinians’ ability to govern themselves. While the Powell camp shares the disdain for Arafat, it believes he remains central to any settlement.

The rift in President Bush’s inner circle, some State Department officials said, has left the administration’s policy “dead in the water.” These officials use words like “despondent” and “disheartened” to describe the mood in Foggy Bottom, saying they cannot remember a time in recent years when they have felt so badly beaten up.

“I can’t think of an awful lot of allies,” a State Department official said. He said the demoralization within the department was “the most acute” in at least five years.