Mideast envoy to face long odds

Saturday, March 9, 2002

WASHINGTON -- American envoy Anthony Zinni faces long odds in his peacemaking trip to the Middle East. The Bush administration is calculating that prolonged bloodletting and a peace proposal by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia might produce a cease-fire and more.

Also working in Zinni's favor is a significant shift in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's position. Sharon had insisted that attacks on Israel be suspended for a week before he would consider renewed peacemaking.

But, a senior U.S. official said Friday, Sharon has indicated in exchanges with the Bush administration that he now is prepared to move directly to that stage.

Zinni's hope is that the fighting will subside even before he goes to the region next week.

The rising death toll among Israeli and Palestinian civilians and Abdullah's offer of recognition and peace for Israel in exchange for land could also work in Zinni's favor.

Administration officials said there was no secret new U.S. peace plan to entice the two sides to lay down their arms and negotiate. Both Israel and the Palestinians, however, sent word through diplomatic channels that they approved Zinni's trying again.

More significant, perhaps, was the insistence by Arab and European leaders that the United States assume a more active diplomatic role, which offered the Palestinians an incentive to stop attacking Israelis.

"I think it's a response to pressure," said Edward Walker, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel and assistant secretary of state, who now runs the private Middle East Institute.

"The crown prince is pushing. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is pushing. And the State Department has been pushing for some time," Walker said.

Along the same lines, a senior administration official said the administration received signals from leaders in the region that "this was the right time" to send Zinni back.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said those involved concluded that the risks of sending him back were less than the risks of standing aloof to the unfolding disaster.

Basically, Zinni's quest is to sell Israel and the Palestinians on truce terms devised nine months ago by CIA Director George Tenet and on peacemaking recommendations developed nearly a year ago by an international commission headed by former Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell.

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