The United States is sending a senior Middle East negotiator back to the region in a new effort to secure a lasting ceasefire and to restart peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
But in what was billed as an important speech on America's Middle East policy yesterday, Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, risked disappointing both parties to the conflict when he failed to unveil any initiative to break the bloody deadlock.
Instead he reiterated that the US was sticking with the Mitchell plan, which urges a cooling-off period free of violence, confidence-building measures and only then a resumption of the final settlement talks that foundered last year. To this end, William Burns, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East, will return to the Middle East.
General Powell's speech was originally planned for delivery to the United Nations in September, but was put on ice after the terrorist attacks and repeatedly postponed. President Bush set the ball rolling again 10 days ago, breaking new ground in front of the UN General Assembly by speaking of Washington's vision of two states, Israel and Palestine, existing side by side.
But despite that carefully weighed first use of the word "Palestine", Mr Bush has refused to meet Yasser Arafat, with his officials insisting the Palestinian leader is not doing enough to reduce violence.
Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, cancelled a trip to the US this month for fear of being put under pressure to resume peace talks – though he is expected to visit in December.
Yesterday, General Powell did not advance the process much further, other than to announce the return of Mr Burns and to confirm that the retired General Anthony Zinni, who used to command US forces in the Middle East, would prolong his mission to try to nudge the two sides closer together.
Most Middle East hands were expecting little. Martin Indyk, a US ambassador to Israel under President Clinton, said "This is no time for an over-ambitious initiative. You can't jump from extreme violence in the last few months to start negotiating final status issues like the status of Jerusalem."
Washington is determined to avoid concessions that might reward al-Qa'ida and Osama bin Laden, whom the US accuses of "hijacking" the Middle East issue as a justification for his terrorist campaign.
General Powell said the violence was serving neither Israel nor the Palestinians. The intifada was now "mired in the quick sand of self-defeating violence and terror directed against Israel", he said. Israel's occupation and its systematic reprisals were an equal contributor to the deadlock and the resentment of Palestinians.
Israel was relieved America had demanded nothing new from it. Shimon Peres, the Foreign Minister, described the speech as "positive and full of good will", and the office of Mr Sharon said he was pleased.
Nabil Shaath, a Palestinian peace negotiator, welcomed the references to Israeli "occupation" and the call for the creation of a "viable Palestinian state". But he said he was disappointed in the lack of commitment to sending international monitors to the region.
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