US Bears Down on Mideast ; Two Top US Officials - Cheney and Zinni - Head for Israel after Weekend of Brutal Violence

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When US envoy Anthony Zinni tried to broker an Israeli- Palestinian cease-fire late last year, he failed because he seemed to lack the leeway to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, say diplomats here.

As he returns this week for another attempt, success will hinge on whether he can push the Israelis - and not just the Palestinians - toward compromise.

"During this mission, to salvage the situation, he needs to talk turkey with both sides," observes a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Over the weekend, Mr. Sharon indicated new flexibility toward a cease-fire, saying he would no longer insist that seven days of absolute quiet precede any interim confidence building steps.

The major prompt for the Zinni trip is that the first 10 days of March have been the worst period of violence here in the past 18 months. On Friday, Israeli forces killed 39 Palestinians, mainly during sweeping incursions into refugee camps in the West Bank. Six Israelis also died, including five teenage military trainees who were killed after a Palestinian fighter crept into their settlement in the Gaza Strip.

Signs of conciliation are no surprise in advance of high-profile US intervention, but the Israeli leader may not have his eye only on Mr. Zinni. Vice President Dick Cheney, now on a Middle East tour intended to rally support for a possible US attempt to overthrow Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, is expected in Israel March 18.

"For Sharon, what is going on with the Palestinians is bad and bloody," says a European diplomat who also requested anonymity, "but Iraq and Iran are strategic." The diplomat's idea is that Sharon will do what he can to encourage any US plan to defang states in the region that pose a major military threat to Israel.

Statements last week by President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell suggest that the US is toning down its support for Mr. Sharon's hardline tactics in countering the Palestinians' resistance against Israeli occupation, but the substance of any shift will be measured when Zinni arrives, perhaps by the end of the week.

The retired general is inserting himself into an increasingly deadly struggle.

For two Saturdays in a row, Palestinian suicide bombers have marked the end of the Jewish sabbath by detonating their explosives in central Jerusalem. The two attacks alone took 21 Israeli lives.

But both attacks took place in the context of massive Israeli incursions into Palestinian refugee camps. In operations lasting several days as a time, Israeli forces have gone house-to-house in several densely populated camps, killing scores of Palestinian fighters and civilians.

The level of violence feels to some like a turning point. The Israeli daily Ha'aretz editorialized yesterday that Israelis and Palestinians may have hit the "point of attrition at which an intitial compromise can be forged. …