U.S. Mideast Envoy Ends Fruitless Mission

With violence escalating in the Middle East and Israel refusing to deal with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the U.S. Middle East envoy, retired marine general Anthony Zinni, is to end his 19-day fruitless mission to the region on Saturday after a short visit to Jordan and Egypt.

The U.S. State Department said that Secretary of State Colin Powell has recalled Zinni back to Washington "for consultation and the Christmas holiday." Israeli officials said Zinni will not return to Israel in the near future.

Zinni arrived in the region on November 26 in a bid to convince both Israel and the Palestinians to implement a lasting ceasefire to end their nearly 15-month-old violence, which has killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Palestinians.

The U.S. mediation attempts, however, have run up against an escalation in violence between the two sides.

When Zinni left Israel for Jordan and Egypt on Friday, Israeli warplanes, helicopters and ground forces attacked more facilities of Arafat's Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel decided this week to sever ties with Arafat after accusing him of being directly responsible for attacks by Palestinian militants.

Neither Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon nor Arafat has given the U.S. envoy any slack to help his mission achieve a ceasefire and get Israel and the Palestinians out of their cycle of violence and onto the track recommended by the Mitchell Report.

However, both leaders had insisted that Zinni should stick around, preferring to continue their fighting with an American proctor in the region.

Observers here said that the U.S. envoy's presence in the region is important for both sides.

Sharon benefits from Zinni's presence. The U.S. envoy's announcements after each Palestinian "terrorist" attack have provided important backings to the decisions of the Israeli cabinet.

Arafat also needs Zinni. The envoy's stay in the region is an expression of international legitimacy for Arafat's regime, and he is the Palestinians' last defense from the Israeli prime minister's wrath.

According to officials close to the envoy, Zinni decided that there was no point in continuing his efforts to broker a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians after a Thursday night meeting with Sharon.

Given the new round of violence and questions about his mission, however, some officials here expressed fear that even a short trip back home for the U.S. envoy might give the wrong signal.

During Zinni's 19 days in the Middle East, Palestinian suicide bombing attacks in Israel and Israeli-occupied territory and mortar attacks against Jewish settlers have intensified, during which about 43 Israelis have been killed.

Sharon's government has also intensified its retaliation attacks on Arafat's administration, security headquarters and other symbols of power.

As Israel continues its attacks against Palestinians, U.S. officials said they were re-evaluating the fruitless mission, which has failed to achieve any agreement from the Israelis and Palestinians to defuse the nearly 15-month bloody conflict.

A U.S. official in Jerusalem said the current assessment of the U.S. government is that chances of reaching a ceasefire are steadily diminishing and therefore the U.S. government must reconsider its most recent Middle East initiative.

The official said during his stay in the region, Zinni concentrated exclusively on progress toward a ceasefire and not on the basic issues at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

These basic issues include Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, continued construction of Jewish settlements in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory, the definition of Israel's borders and of a possible Palestinian state, the "right to return" for Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.

Zinni has brokered a 48-hour period of "restraint" twice, in which Israel pledged to limit strikes on Palestinians to responses for specific attacks and "ticking bombs" who were planning terrorist attacks. But the so-called periods of restraint have been shattered by renewed violence each time.

Zinni said in a statement issued before leaving the region that Washington remains committed to achieving peace in the Middle East and that the U.S. administration will continue to deal with Arafat as the representative of the Palestinian people.

Secretary of State Powell said earlier that the U.S. could not walk away while things are "getting worse, not better" after Zinni's 19-day nonstop U.S. mediation in Jerusalem.

"We really cannot give up hope. We can't walk away from this. The stakes are too high," Powell said.

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