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Thursday, 3 January, 2002, 18:00 GMT
Tough times for US Mid-East envoy
Israeli tanks in Nablus
Washington believes the time is right to intervene
By the BBC's Caroline Hawley in Jerusalem

United States envoy Anthony Zinni knows from bitter experience just how hard his task is as he renews his mission to end the past 15 months of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

General Zinni will continue to focus the Palestinian Authority on security measures to combat terror

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher

After pledging last month to stay in the region "for as long as it takes," the retired general eventually returned home.

His open-ended peace mission had been defeated by a dramatic upsurge of violence which began just as he arrived.

A string of Palestinian suicide bombings killed 26 Israelis, leading to massive Israeli retaliation.

In a series of Israeli air-strikes, the Palestinian leader saw his helicopters and many of his security installations destroyed.

Towards a ceasefire

As General Zinni returns to the Middle East, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat remains confined to his headquarters in Ramallah, grounded there by Israel to force him to act more firmly against Palestinian militants.

But the Palestinian leader's crackdown so far, and two weeks of relative calm, have convinced Washington that the time is right to resume efforts to coax the two sides towards a lasting ceasefire.

Anthony Zinni
Both sides are optimistic about Mr Zinni's visit

Over the past few weeks, Palestinian security forces are reported to have arrested over 200 members of extremist groups.

They have also closed down offices belonging to Hamas and Islamic Jihad as well as make-shift factories producing mortars that militants had been using to fire at Jewish settlements.

Israel has also been making its own arrests during military operations in Palestinian-controlled territory.

As General Zinni flew in, Israel, in a "gesture of good will", began to ease stringent restrictions on the movement of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza - a Palestinian demand backed by the United States.

"General Zinni will continue to focus the Palestinian Authority on security measures to combat terror and to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure and to promote a continued reduction in the level of violence," said State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher.

"He'll also discuss with Israel economic measures that they can take to ease the pressure on the Palestinians."

Low expectations

But beyond that, General Zinni's goals for his mission are modest, and expectations of his four-day visit are realistically low.

Arafat has called for an end to attacks against Israel
Mr Arafat is under pressure to crack down on militants

Not only are the Palestinians and Israelis still far apart, but the Israeli Government is itself split on the way forward.

One Israeli newspaper referred to a "frontline" between the hardline Israeli leader, Ariel Sharon, and his Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres.

Mr Peres believes the Palestinians have done enough to warrant an imminent resumption of political negotiations.

But Ariel Sharon is still sticking to his demand for a week of "complete calm" before he will agree to implement ceasefire proposals put forward by international mediators.

Few in the region envy Anthony Zinni's task.

See also:

03 Jan 02 | Middle East
Israel stages West Bank pull-out
31 Dec 01 | Middle East
Anger over Gaza killings
30 Dec 01 | Middle East
Israel sees peace hope
29 Dec 01 | Middle East
Palestinians urge return of US envoy
15 Dec 01 | Middle East
US recalls Mid-East envoy
15 Dec 01 | Middle East
US blocks Mid-East observers
28 Nov 01 | Middle East
US Mid-East envoy calls for change
29 Nov 01 | key documents
The Mitchell report
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