A delegation of U.S. Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders Tuesday urged Secretary of State Colin Powell to immediately appoint a special envoy to try to get Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts going. Mr. Powell did not reject the idea out of hand, but said Palestinian violence has frustrated previous envoy missions.
The delegation members were supportive of the international "road map" that has been the basis of the U.S. Middle East peace efforts under President Bush.
But they said they were troubled by evidence that road map has been, "effectively been put on hold" until the U.S. election in November.
They said the administration should make Israel-Palestinian negotiations an urgent priority and that an envoy should be named now to jump-start the process.
The group, the National Inter-Religious Leadership Initiative for Peace, included leading Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim clergymen, though it did not claim to represent all U.S. factions of those major faiths.
At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher insisted the Bush administration has not shelved peace efforts for the duration of the campaign, and among other things is "looking for opportunities" in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plans.
He said Mr. Powell did not reject the envoy idea out of hand, but said such a move had to be timed to take advantage of promising circumstances in the region.
?He was not in any way averse or opposed to the appointment of high-level envoys, but that they need to be appointed at a time and to work at a time, when there's really something to do, when there's really some way of making progress by using such an envoy.? Mr. Boucher said. ?And in that context I would say he reiterated the need for control of the violence and for the Palestinians to take responsibility to control the violence, because that is the thing that has led to the problems and the breakdown of previous efforts by envoys.?
A senior diplomat who spoke to reporters said the administration has tried Middle East missions by a series of envoys including former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, CIA Director George Tenet, retired U.S. Marine General Anthony Zinni and senior State Department official John Wolf.
All of them, he said, have come up against the "hard wall" of Palestinian violence and the failure of Palestinian leaders to do enough to end it.
But members of the inter-religious group said the United States cannot afford to wait until violence stops totally.
Rabbi Paul Menitoff of the Central Conference of American Rabbis said it is clear there will be a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict, but the longer it is delayed, the more Israelis and Palestinians will die.
New York City Muslim cleric Feisal Abdel Rauf said the U.S. administration needs to take a "proactive role" in creating opportunities for peace, and said resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can help ease the situation in Iraq.