US slow to send back its envoy despite lull in violence


Although intifada conflict between Palestinians and Israelis has declined significantly in the past two weeks, the Bush administration is reluctant to send its peace envoy back to the region, for fear his presence would spark a new escalation.

After some of the heaviest violence in 15 months in the early days of December - with suicide bombings in Haifa and Jerusalem, an assault by Palestinian gunmen on a bus and private cars outside a West Bank settlement, and a heavy Israeli military response against PA installations - there have been two weeks of relative calm, since the Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat made a televised plea for an end to armed attacks on Israelis. Nevertheless, in northern Gaza last night, Israeli troops shot dead three Palestinians in a gun battle close to an Israeli settlement, army sources said; there was no immediate Palestinian comment.

At a weekend cabinet meeting, the PA leadership appealed to the United States to dispatch Mr Anthony Zinni, its would-be peacebroker, to the region, to mediate talks that would enshrine a ceasefire and set the stage for substantive peace negotiations.

Israel's Prime Minister Mr Ariel Sharon, for his part, told Secretary of State Mr Colin Powell by telephone his government would be delighted to co-operate with any new mission led by Mr Zinni. But Bush administration officials say it is unlikely the former Marine Corps general will return before the end of this week, at the earliest.

The US hesitation is understandable: Mr Zinni's two weeks here at the start of this month coincided with the peak of the violence, and he himself is said to have pleaded with his bosses in Washington to cut short his mission; Mr Powell had originally said he would remain here until a stable ceasefire was obtained.

Furthermore, the reduction in violence has done nothing to curb the hostility between the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships. Mr Arafat has been telling aides lately he intends to outlast Mr Sharon, whom he says is working to bring him down. Mr Sharon flatly told cabinet colleagues yesterday "Arafat has not abandoned terror".

And if there is to be a diplomatic path out of this conflict, Mr Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, and Mr Ahmed Qurei, the Palestinian Parliament Speaker, appear to be managing to lay the groundwork for it themselves, unaffected by Mr Zinni's absence. Mr Peres assured dubious right-wing cabinet ministers yesterday that he and Mr Qurei were only discussing ceasefire terms. At the same time, though, he did not deny newspaper reports of a draft document, prepared in their various meetings, which provides for imminent Palestinian statehood and then intensive state-to-state talks on key issues of dispute.

PA officials say they are taking particularly tough measures against Hamas and other militant groups. Officials spoke of making several key arrests during the weekend, including men suspected of involvement in October's assassination in Jerusalem of the Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi, although not the two gunmen themselves.

They said an Islamic Jihad assailant was intercepted en route to an attack in Gaza's Khan Younis area, that several policemen involved in past attacks have been jailed, that Hamas weapons factories are being exposed and dismantled, and that a closer watch is now being kept on mosques in Gaza to prevent anti-Israel incitement. "Even the blind see the seriousness of the Palestinian Authority efforts on the ground," said the PA negotiator Mr Saeb Erekat. Indeed, Mr Powell telephoned Mr Arafat at the weekend to congratulate him on his success in reducing the violence.

Israeli officials acknowledge the decline in incidents, but said the PA's crackdown was superficial," tactical and temporary.