Zinni Heads Back to Mideast; Bush Hits Israel over Retaliation

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Byline: Bill Sammon and Nicholas Kralev, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

President Bush yesterday dispatched retired Gen. Anthony Zinni to the Middle East, which is teetering on the brink of all-out war, and expressed dissatisfaction with Israel's strategy of racking up Palestinian casualties.

The move signaled a reassessment of the administration's Middle East policy, which until now has consisted largely of calling on both sides to end the violence before substantive peace talks can begin. The White House is now willing to engage the parties more directly.

"There are no assurances, but that is not going to prevent our government from trying," Mr. Bush told reporters in the Rose Garden. "As a result of consultations, we believe there's a possibility we can have an impact."

With the violence at its highest level in 18 months, Mr. Bush said he felt compelled to re-engage the parties. Earlier, he had withdrawn Gen. Zinni from the region after two visits failed to quell the violence.

At that time, the administration indicated that Gen. Zinni would not return until the bloodshed ebbed. But the violence has only intensified.

A senior White House official said Mr. Bush was taking advantage of new peace overtures by Arab states.

"Recent ideas put forth by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia have created an opening for discussing this broader peace and for the normalization of relations between Arab states and Israel," the president said. "The United States is committed to exploring this opening."

The president has instructed Gen. Zinni to attempt to implement a security plan devised by CIA Director George J. Tenet.

Once this security arrangement is in place, Mr. Bush wants both sides to work on a peace plan outlined by former Sen. George Mitchell.

Gen. Zinni will be in the region at the same time as Vice President Richard B. Cheney, who on Sunday begins a 10-day tour of 12 nations in the Middle East. Although that trip originally was planned as an opportunity to rally ongoing support for America's war against terrorism, it is now viewed as a second front in the administration's growing efforts to halt the violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

"Obviously, one of the subjects I'll be discussing with my hosts are the efforts that General Zinni will undertake and the approach to the Tenet and the Mitchell plans that the president's outlined here today, as well as Crown Prince Abdullah's initiatives," said Mr. Cheney, who joined the president in the Rose Garden.

Also on hand was Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who recently raised eyebrows with unusually sharp words against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's handling of the Palestinian uprising.

Mr. Powell said the Tenet plan "will allow both sides to get into security consultations so we can get the violence under control, down to zero, start to restore confidence between the two sides, end the killing and then move to a political settlement that is an outcome of the Mitchell process."

Earlier yesterday, Mr. Powell sought to reassure Israel that the United States is still fully behind the Jewish state despite his rebuke of Mr. Sharon's handling of the Palestinian uprising.

"We are seen as Israel's big supporter, and we are, and we always will be," Mr. Powell told a House Budget Committee hearing.

As in his testimony before another congressional committee the day before, he expressed concern about Israeli policy but was cautious in choosing his words.

"They have to be very careful as to the means they use to defend their people, because in recent months it has just produced a series of escalations rather than bringing things under control," Mr. …