US begins talks for political solution to conflict

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Washington shifted its position on the Middle East yesterday when it revealed it was in talks to find a political solution, despite the absence of a ceasefire agreement.

The Bush administration had previously insisted that a ceasefire was needed before it could help find a settlement. It cited a plan by the CIA director, George Tenet, to achieve a security arrangement before trying to implement the proposals drawn up by the former senator George Mitchell for a political settlement. The US special envoy, General Anthony Zinni, is in the region trying to achieve such a ceasefire.

The shift came as the European Commission declared American mediation in the Middle East a failure. It urged the United States to stand down as primary peacemaker and allow an alliance of nations to mediate a ceasefire and a durable peace agreement.

Europe's foreign ministers met in an extraordinary session in Luxembourg last night to discuss the crisis. Romano Prodi, the commission's president, said: "It is clear [American] mediation efforts have failed."

After the meeting ­ at which it was decided to send a delegation to the region to try to persuade the Israelis and Palestinians to stop fighting and resume negotiations ­ the Foreign Office minister Peter Hain warned the conflict risks spreading beyond Israel and the Palestinian territories and "drawing us all in".

Mr Hain told BBC2's Newsnight: "This is now the most dangerous conflict in the world ... with really serious consequences for the entire international community."

Mr Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said Washington still believed it made "logical sense" for a ceasefire before talks could proceed. But he admitted talks were going on, independent of General Zinni, on a political settlement. He said: "Talks are going on but it is very hard to get to that in a meaningful way when there is so much violence."

There are signs that, amid growing international criticism of America's decision to remain largely hands-off, President Bush is slowly being encouraged to make a more solid commitment. There is pressure for him to send a more senior envoy to the region, possibly the Secretary of State, Colin Powell.

Mr Fleischer said, referring to security and political issues: "There are two vital guidelines that the President is seeking to advance and they can work independently, they can work together. The important thing is for the parties to begin to focus, with the United States' assistance, on making progress in both of them or either of them."

The security co-operation plan drawn up by Mr Tenet, under which both sides would work together to reduce violence, calls for the Palestinians to collect illegal arms, close bomb factories, arrest those suspected of violence and provide Israel with information about suspected future attacks. It calls on Israel to withdraw its forces to the positions they held before the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000, to refrain from attacking certain Palestinian Authority buildings and to lift the closure imposed on the Palestinian territories.

The Bush administration has generally argued that the plan formulated by Mr Mitchell for a peace deal would follow an accord on security. Mr Bush has been reluctant to become involved in Middle East peace-making, using Mr Powell to maintain contact with the Palestinian President, Yasser Arafat, and the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon.