The United States Monday again appealed for restraint by Israel and the Palestinians in advance of Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, planned for mid-August. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will hold talks with both sides in the region later this week.
The Bush administration sees the planned withdrawal as a potential catalyst for progress on the Middle East peace "road map," and it is mounting an extraordinary diplomatic effort to keep the plan on track amid violence and extremist threats.
Two U.S. envoys are working on the issue full time. U.S. Army General William Ward is trying to foster Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation for the pullback. Former World Bank President James Wolfensohn is seeking to line up post-withdrawal economic aid for Gaza on behalf of the international Middle East "quartet."
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch will return to the area Tuesday, less than three days after his return from a similar mission late last week.
Mr. Welch will, among other things, be laying groundwork for Secretary of State Rice's second trip to the area in as many months, which begins in a few days.
Spokesman McCormack said the U.S. message to the parties in all the contacts is to work together and show restraint to make the disengagement plan a success.
"Making the maximum effort as we have talked about, both individually and together, will we hope lead to a successful disengagement," he said. "The time to make this maximum effort is now. I noted this on Friday, it is true today. Both parties need to make a maximum effort to make this withdrawal successful. We also urge both parties to exercise restraint and restore calm."
Secretary Rice will visit the Middle East at the end of a foreign trip that she begins Tuesday and which opens with stops in Senegal and Sudan.
Mr. McCormack said she continued telephone diplomacy over the weekend, speaking with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's chief of staff Dov Weisglass. She called Palestinian Authority Chief Mahmoud Abbas last week.
The State Department has cited "positive steps" by the Abbas administration in recent days to curb Gaza militants who have fired rockets into Israeli settlements and towns in recent days, but it says more needs to be done.
While acknowledging Israel's right to defend itself from such attacks, U.S. officials have urged Israeli leaders to consider the consequences of retaliatory action, which has included helicopter strikes aimed at Palestinian militants.
Secretary Rice discussed the matter by telephone last Friday with Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.