The director of the CIA, George Tenet, will meet Israeli and Palestinian representatives in the West Bank city of Ramallah today to discuss arrangements for enforcing the current uneasy ceasefire.
The meeting was scheduled after talks between Mr Tenet and the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, who renewed his call for the Palestinian Authority to "begin the arrests" of militants from the fundamentalist Islamic Jihad and Hamas groups, who are blamed for the recent spate of suicide bombings in Israel. He also reportedly demanded that any long-term ceasefire should include an undertaking by the Palestinians to stop the stone-throwing and petrol bomb attacks on Israelis. Mr Tenet was due to meet Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, last night.
One Palestinian source said that moves were afoot to start a new round of security talks in Cairo, between Israel and the Palestinians, with American and Egyptian involvement. If agreement on such a meeting is reached, it would be the first time since the failure of Bill Clinton's last-ditch peace effort at Camp David in January that the American, Israel and Palestinian authorities would meet.
Mr Tenet arrived in Jerusalem on Wednesday, entrusted by President George Bush to try to finalise the ceasefire announced by Mr Arafat last Saturday, after the suicide bomb in Tel Aviv that killed 21 people. Mr Sharon had earlier announced a partial ceasefire on Israel's behalf, and has so far refrained from the retaliatory strike feared by the Palestinians in response to the Tel Aviv bomb.
The Palestinians claim, however, that the Israelis have repeatedly broken the ceasefire, and both Mr Sharon and Mr Arafat face mounting domestic pressure to take action. One purpose of Mr Tenet's visit is clearly to try to defuse some of that pressure.
Dispatching Mr Tenet represented an about-turn for Mr Bush. One of his first actions as President was to announce an end to the CIA's role in Middle East talks. It was just one of a series of signals sent by the White House that America under Mr Bush was abandoning Mr Clinton's policy of personal diplomacy.
With the progressive rise in violence, though, and the risk that the intifada could grow into all-out war, Mr Bush reversed tracks. Although William Burns, the envoy sent by the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, to the region last week, had returned with little to show for his trouble, Mr Bush accepted Mr Clinton's reasoning and dispatched Mr Tenet.
Mr Clinton brought the CIA director into Middle East negotiations last year to try to shift talks on to a more practical and less political level, and use the intelligence-gathering expertise of the CIA. The decision by Mr Bush to use the CIA is just the latest instance of him accepting the wisdom of the former administration.
* On Wednesday, the White House announced after studying a "review" of the position by its experts that it would open security talks with North Korea. The talks will focus on the country's missile programme and its deployment of troops near its border with the South.Reuse content