As violence continues to swirl through the Middle East, Washington is paying new attention to an old idea: separating Israelis and Palestinians with a force of international peacekeepers.
This doesn't mean the 82nd Airborne will be heading for the West Bank anytime soon. Both the White House and key members of Congress are committed to seeing how the US-backed road-map peace plan plays out.
But as casualties mount and the two sides struggle to agree on a cease-fire, some officials and outside experts here are beginning to wonder if the US needs to think about more radical measures. Their logic: Such a buffer might provide the stability the region needs to nurture political reconciliation.
"If the road-map process hits a dead end..., at that point you might have to look at some other things," says M.J. Rosenberg, director of policy analysis at the Israel Policy Forum.
On Wednesday this process continued to grind along, but barely. A meeting between Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and representatives from Hamas and other militant factions broke up without agreement on a common position regarding a cease-fire with Israel.
Secretary of State Colin Powell was to meet with both Israelis and Palestinians on Friday in Jerusalem, on his way to a meeting of the Mideast "quartet" - the US, UN, European Union, and Russia - in Jordan.
"I am encouraged that both sides seem to realize that they cannot allow this immediate wave of terrorism to stand in the way of progress down the road map," Powell told reporters during a stop in Cambodia on Wednesday.
But some in Washington have decided that Israeli and Palestinian leaders may unable to halt the violence on their own.
Small units of international peacekeepers have long been a fact of life in the Middle East. In the Sinai such troops monitor the Israeli-Egyptian peace today. President Clinton once considered sending in US GIs to similarly watch over an Israeli-Syrian peace.
Building on this history, last week the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia, proposed the use of NATO troops as full-blown Middle East peacekeepers.
NATO units have extensive peacekeeping experience, gained in Bosnia and elsewhere, Warner noted. Their multinational character might be acceptable to both sides, given that Europe has traditionally been sympathetic to Palestinians, and the United States to Israel.
"The NATO offer would have to be willingly accepted by both governments, and it in no way should be viewed as a challenge to either side's sovereignty," said Senator Warner.
The White House has reacted coolly to this proposal - in response President Bush sent Warner a letter that noted that Middle East peace "must be sustainable with the presence of outside peacekeeping forces."
Warner has long been a proponent of this idea. But this time he is far from alone in proposing a broader approach to ending Middle East violence. Such respected Middle East experts as William Quandt of the University of Virginia have echoed his call, saying that something new is needed to get the peace process past the cycle of fighting that typically follows any promising political development.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently told an Israeli newspaper that armed peacekeepers might act as an interim "buffer" between the two sides.
Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a broadcast interview last Sunday that US troops might eventually be used to help fight terrorists in the region.
In a variation on this theme, former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk has proposed that the Palestinian Authority be transferred into an international trusteeship, complete with an international security force. Such a deployment might be fraught with danger. The phase "buffer force" implies the absorption of attacks, which might be enough to prevent the idea from becoming a reality.
"I really worry about getting our people caught in this body- bag type of situation, having the suicide bombers focusing on US or United Nations troops because they see us as the impediment," said former CIA director Stansfield Turner.
Furthermore, the presence of international troops might produce difficult political questions. For example, where exactly should such a buffer be placed? The line of separation would probably become a de facto border between Israel and a nascent Palestinian state. Israel might object if the forces were placed near its pre-1967 borders, and Palestinians would likewise object to troops in the occupied territories.
Thus political progress might be a necessary precursor to any such deployment. As was said of US-Soviet arms agreements during the Cold War, new international peacekeepers in the Middle East might be possible only when they are no longer necessary.