As US envoy visits, Mideast struggles

Two attacks Sunday complicate Anthony Zinni's delicate Mideast mission.

US mediator Anthony Zinni has arrived in the Middle East with a new approach, but it is not producing immediate results.

As violence flared yet again yesterday, a Western diplomat involved in the negotiations said the two sides were "stuck" over how the Israelis should withdraw their forces from Palestinian areas and how the two sides can complement cease-fire talks with a discussion about an overall settlement of their differences.

In Gaza – where a massive crowd yesterday buried a woman, her three children, and a nephew killed on Friday in an explosion each side attributes to the other – people were not optimistic about Mr. Zinni's chances.

"If there's no political solution there will be no security, and that is the problem with Zinni," said Col. Abu Ibrahim Al Awawdeh of the Palestinian Preventive Security service, a force created in part to prevent attacks against Israelis.

Israelis, too, were doubtful, with senior officials registering dismay at two attacks yesterday, a suicide bombing in a Jerusalem suburb and a shooting rampage in the town of Kfar Saba north of Tel Aviv.

"Israel has offered a cease-fire, pulled back most of its forces in good faith, and this seems to be the answer Israel is receiving," Dore Gold, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told The Associated Press.

After a week of large-scale invasions of Palestinian areas in the West Bank, the largest of such operations since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Israeli forces have indeed withdrawn considerably from the positions they held last week.

But yesterday Israeli troops advanced farther into Bethlehem, a town under full Palestinian control, and they remain in the next-door town of Beit Jala, which is also nominally under the control of the Palestinian Authority.

Negotiating the withdrawal of these troops, as well as others in Palestinian areas, is complicating Zinni's mission. Echoing a Palestinian demand for a full pullback before the commencement of cease-fire talks, US officials have demanded that Mr. Sharon comply.

But the Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Israelis were refusing to pull back completely without guarantees from the Palestinian Authority that it would step in to those areas to protect Israel's security. Working out such arrangements amounts to a resumption of security talks, something the Palestinians refuse to do unless there is a complete withdrawal without concomitant political discussions.

These conditions, in turn, pose complications for the Israelis. In another significant gesture to Zinni, the Israelis have agreed to engage in some sort of political discussions – a step that until now the Israeli leader has said he would not take until the Palestinians stopped their attacks against Israelis. Sharon faces political pressure not to talk peace with the Palestinians until he fulfills an overdue campaign promise to restore Israelis' sense of security. At the same time, the alarming level of Israeli-Palestinian violence has prompted the Bush administration to take an unusually active role in efforts to calm things down.

Still, the complications are not stopping Palestinians from celebrating what they see as an improvement in Zinni's approach. During two earlier Zinni missions, according to diplomats involved in the discussions, the retired Marine general concentrated largely on pressuring the Palestinians to implement a cease-fire. He did not appear to have the leeway to pressure Sharon to make concessions.

That onesidedness seems to have changed, says Nabil Shaath, a Palestinian cabinet minister. "I see real pressure for the pullout and for the implementation of the Tenet [cease-fire plan] and for restarting political talks – for restarting the peace process," he says.

But even if Zinni can resurrect negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, it is an increasingly open question whether militant Palestinian groups will go along with it.

Marwan Barghouti, a leading Palestinian politician who has been a strident advocate of using force to pressure the Israelis toward compromise, sees no reason to desist from this tactic. Even if the Israelis do pull out of Palestinian-controlled areas, says Mr. Barghouti, "Palestinian military resistance will continue."

There is skepticism among Palestinians over the true motives behind Zinni's mission. No one here has overlooked the travels of another senior US official – Vice President Dick Cheney – who is in the Middle East to win Arab support for a possible US move against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. As Colonel Al-Awawdeh said from a mourning tent in Gaza, "Zinni came to the area to make it easier for the United States to attack Iraq."

• Ben Lynfield contributed to this report from Bureij refugee camp, in Gaza.

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