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US to Send Diplomats to Mideast for Talks on Peace - 2004-01-21

Bush administration is sending two senior diplomats to the Middle East in the next few days to press Israel and the Palestinians to fulfill their commitments under the international peace "road map." The State Department says the U.S. commitment to a Middle East settlement is undiminished though President Bush did not mention it in his State of the Union message.

Officials here say that Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield and John Wolf, head of the U.S. team monitoring compliance with the "road map," will leave for the region soon for a new push for action by the parties on the peace plan.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the two diplomats will seek concrete steps by the Palestinians to confront terror and violence, while reiterating to Israel the need for sustained effort to improve the humanitarian situation for Palestinians and to meet commitments for freezing settlement activity and dismantling unauthorized settler outposts.

There has been little movement by either side to fulfill "road map" provisions since the plan backed by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations was formally launched a year ago.

And there were expressions of concern from Palestinians and others that President Bush's failure to specifically mention the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in his State of the Union address late Tuesday may reflect disengagement by the administration. Spokesman Ereli, however, said the U.S. commitment to Middle East peace-making is undiminished. "Not every issue gets into the State of the Union speech," he said. "And I think that it would be erroneous to conclude that it not being in the State of the Union speech is a lessening of commitment or a lowering of the priority of this issue."

On another issue, Mr. Ereli said the United States is in close touch with the governments of Israel, Lebanon and Syria to urge restraint and avoid escalation after an eruption of violence earlier this week.

An attack by Hezbollah guerrillas on an Israeli bulldozer operating along the Israeli-Lebanese border Monday killed an Israeli soldier and prompted Israeli air strikes at Hezbollah bases in Lebanon late Tuesday.

A senior diplomat here said U.S. officials agree with United Nations observers that the bulldozer had been hit while on the Lebanese side of the border, but they said it had been clearing mines planted by Hezbollah along both sides of the line.

Echoing a statement by Secretary of State Colin Powell Tuesday, Mr. Ereli said Hezbollah has taken "calculated and provocative actions" and that those actions should stop.