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American envoy Zinni's mission could get a boost from Sharon's shift


WASHINGTON (AP) _ A Saudi peace overture and a strategic shift by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon could boost American mediator Anthony Zinni's chances of getting an agreement when he goes to the Middle East next week.

The retired Marine Corps general still faces long odds, however, as he returns to the task of persuading Israel and the Palestinians to agree to a truce and get started on peacemaking.

The Bush administration is calculating that prolonged bloodletting and a peace proposal by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia might help Zinni, whose two previous attempts failed.

Sharon had insisted that attacks on Israel be suspended for a week before he would consider renewed peacemaking.

But, a senior U.S. official said Friday, Sharon has indicated in exchanges with the Bush administration that he now is prepared to move directly to that stage.

Zinni's hope is that the fighting will subside before he goes to the region next week.

The rising death toll among Israeli and Palestinian civilians and Abdullah's offer of recognition and peace for Israel in exchange for land also could work in Zinni's favor.

Administration officials said there was no secret new U.S. peace plan to entice the two sides to lay down their arms and negotiate. Both Israel and the Palestinians, however, sent word through diplomatic channels that they approved Zinni's trying again.

More significant, perhaps, was the insistence by Arab and European leaders that the United States assume a more active diplomatic role, which offered the Palestinians an incentive to stop attacking Israelis.

``I think it's a response to pressure,'' said Edward Walker, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel and assistant secretary of state, who now runs the private Middle East Institute.

``The crown prince is pushing. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is pushing. And the State Department has been pushing for some time,'' Walker said.

Along the same lines, a senior administration official said the administration received signals from leaders in the region that ``this was the right time'' to send Zinni back.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said those involved concluded that the risks of sending him back were less than the risks of standing aloof to the unfolding disaster.

Basically, Zinni's quest is to sell Israel and the Palestinians on truce terms devised nine months ago by CIA Director George Tenet and on peacemaking recommendations developed nearly a year ago by an international commission headed by former Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell.

Zinni made the same sales pitches late last year and again in January.

Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland professor and Middle East analyst, said Friday he would be surprised if the administration ``don't have assurances they are going to give Zinni something.''

Otherwise, Telhami said in an interview, ``it would be very silly to send Zinni out there again to come back with nothing.''
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