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Envoy Zinni to Return to Mideast Bush Orders Special Envoy to Attempt Restart of Negotiation Process

By Alan Sipress

President Bush Thursday ordered his special envoy Anthony Zinni back to a Middle East staggered by unprecedented bloodletting between Israelis and Palestinians, shelving the administration’s longtime insistence that the sides begin restoring calm before the United States resumes its role as peace broker.

Faced with escalating violence and Israeli talk of all-out war on the Palestinians, Bush called a hastily arranged news conference to announce the change of direction, which officials said has been under serious consideration since Tuesday.

Zinni, a retired Marine general first tapped last fall to help negotiate a cease fire, is scheduled to leave for the Middle East next week. U.S. officials said they didn’t know long he’d remain but that his immediate task would be forcing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to adhere to the terms of a truce worked out last June by CIA director George Tenet.

“The United States will do all it can to help the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority restore hope to their people and to the region,” Bush said. “I once again call upon Chairman Arafat to make maximum effort to end terrorism against Israel, which undermines the prospects for peace. And as we move forward, I’m counting on all parties in the region, Prime Minister Sharon included, to do everything they can to make these efforts a success.”

The decision to reassert the United States’ role as a peace broker in the Middle East after two months of standing on the sidelines represented a significant shift of policy for the Bush administration. As pictures of Arab and Jewish victims flooded television screens around the world, the administration has faced a rising chorus from both Arab and European allies demanding U.S. mediation.

A senior administration official said “the current policy simply wasn’t having the desired effect. To the contrary, things were moving in the wrong direction.”

The decision to send Zinni back to the region also came amid mounting administration concerns that the Middle East strife could overshadow Vice President Cheney’s trip to the region that begins Sunday.

While U.S. officials plan to use the trip to talk with U.S. allies about the anti-terrorism campaign, they said it has become apparent that Cheney would be confronted in Arab capitals with complaints about the absence of U.S. involvement in trying to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.