U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni arrives in the Middle East this week for a renewed effort to broker a cease-fire, this time following a period of rapidly escalating violence between Israel and the Palestinians. Nearly 160 Palestinians and 60 Israelis have been killed so far this month in the worst bloodshed since the conflict began more than 17 months ago.
When retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni first arrived in the Middle East last December, he was met by a wave of violence that swamped his mission, including an Israeli targeted killing and Palestinian suicide bombings.
During his second visit early this year Mr. Zinni was just sitting down for a meeting with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat when Israel revealed its naval commandos had seized a freighter full of weapons in the Red Sea headed for the Gaza Strip.
As General Zinni arrives for his third trip he may, once again, be facing an impossible mission.
For the last two weeks, Israeli-Palestinian violence has skyrocketed to its worst level since the conflict erupted in September 2000.
Palestinian shooting attacks and suicide bombings have been met with fierce Israeli military invasions of cities and refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
An adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations says the Israeli government is doubtful the Palestinians want to stop the fighting. "We've gone through quite a few cease-fires in the past with Yasser Arafat, which is why probably many people are skeptical about the willingness of the Palestinian Authority to end this war they've imposed on Israel," said Dore Gold. "So we go into this with a willingness to try, with a willingness to go the extra mile, but with a large degree of skepticism about Mr. Arafat's intentions."
Palestinian political analyst Ghassan Khatib, who is the director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, said he believes Mr. Zinni will fail in his attempts to negotiate a lasting truce.
Mr. Khatib said the only way to end the bloodshed is by dealing with what he sees as the core issue of the conflict - the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"Unfortunately there are not high expectations from this visit. The reason is that we didn't hear anything that would indicate changes in his approach or plans from his previous two visits, which were not successful. What we heard is that he is coming to work out cease-fire arrangements and last time we think he failed because he limited his activities to working out cease-fire arrangements. The reason is that we believe that without dealing with the political causes of the violence it is very difficult to end violence," said Mr. Khatib.
As he has before, General Zinni is expected to try and convince Israel and the Palestinians to agree to truce terms worked out last June by the director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, George Tenet.
One new element General Zinni may inject into the negotiations is the idea of American monitors to observe whether both sides are keeping their commitments if a cease-fire is reached.
Such monitors could include U.S. diplomats and officers from the CIA.
Palestinian political analyst Ghassan Khatib said the Palestinians favor this idea. "We view it positively. We think this is a step in the right direction because any contribution to the presence of referees in the Palestinian territories would be useful," Mr. Khatib said.
Israel has traditionally opposed the presence of international monitors, saying they are a violation of the Jewish state's sovereignty and would interfere with the country's military operations.
Israeli government spokesman Dore Gold said, however, that a small number of U.S. observers may be acceptable. "Should the Central Intelligence Agency become active in monitoring the cease-fire that I am sure General Zinni will try and create, having some people on the ground looking at what is going on and giving an objective report may not be a bad idea. But that is more or less an extension of what already exists in the Tenet cease-fire agreement rather than a complete, new monitoring force such as you had once in southern Lebanon with the United Nations," he said.
During his visit, General Zinni is expected to arrange three-way security meetings between Palestinians, Israelis and U.S. officials in hopes of hammering out a cease-fire.
It is not known whether the envoy will remain in the Middle East until he succeeds or will leave the region even if it is still engulfed in relentless fighting.