Peace envoy Anthony Zinni's return to the Middle East later this week is seen as an attempt to address mounting international pressure on the Bush administration.
Zinni set off for Israel as the U.N. Security Council, in a surprise move, approved a resolution Tuesday night calling for a Palestinian state next to Israel. It was the first time the council explicitly has endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state.
After saying that he would not send Zinni back to the region until Palestinian attacks on Israel fell substantially, President Bush reversed course last week, and said Zinni would return to the region.
Zinni was scheduled to arrive on Thursday. The envoy's second mission to the region ended in early January, at which time he set several conditions for anti-terror action by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
Arafat largely has ignored the demands. Yet, American officials believe that without some gesture, Vice President Dick Cheney's trip to the region -- where he is discussing the American war on terrorism and a possible attack on Iraq -- would be consumed by Arab calls for American action in the escalating Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Concern for the Cheney trip "was the key element," said David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "They didn't want the Cheney visit to be diverted and marred by Arab-Israeli issues."
Indeed, Cheney was at the president's side when Zinni's trip was announced. He noted that the Arab-Israeli conflict was "not the only thing" on his agenda.
Tom Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, said sending Zinni back to the region eases the pressure on Arafat to control violence.
"Having Zinni return before violence stops is a concession to the terrorism that is going on," he said.
A State Department official, however, disagreed.
"The violence got so out of hand, we wrote ourselves a new parameter for sending Zinni back," the official said. "In sending Zinni right now, we can remove any excuses Arafat may claim for not doing what he must do."
In early December, on Zinni's first visit to the region, Palestinian suicide bombers attacked Israel, forcing Zinni to return to the United States. On his second visit, a Palestinian ship was caught transporting tons of weapons and ammunition from Iran.
Some people question what options the Bush administration will have if Zinni again proves ineffective. But other analysts say Zinni is the best, if not the only, choice right now.
Stephen Spiegel, a political scientist and a scholar for the Israel Policy Forum, said it was a mistake to announce that Zinni would not return until violence was quelled, since it allowed terrorists to veto any diplomatic progress.
In the end, it was precisely the increasing violence, and international pressure to stop it, that forced Bush to make the move. Since Zinni was recalled in January, the Bush administration has kept rhetorical pressure on Arafat to curb terrorist attacks as the first step toward a cease-fire.
But all signs are that the policy has been ineffective. Arafat's Fatah faction has emerged lately as the leading militant group, carrying out virtually all the terror attacks of recent weeks through its Tanzim and Al-Aksa Brigade militias. Hamas got back into the fray with an attack in the Gaza Strip on March 7.
With U.S. activity reduced to verbal salvoes, the spotlight has shifted in the past few weeks to initiatives from the European and Arab states, which are less palatable to Israel. As more states sought ways to temper the conflict, each pressed for U.S. intervention. The United Nations, European Union and Egypt all have called on the United States to get involved, as have newspaper editorials in the United States.
Tuesday's U.N. resolution was sponsored by the United States and was approved by a 14-0 vote, with Syria abstaining. Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority welcomed the resolution. "The whole world is behind a Palestinian state," an Arafat spokesman said.
Israeli officials, for their part, noted that the text "demands immediate cessation of all acts of violence, including all forms of terror, provocation, incitement and destruction."
Israel's U.N. ambassador, Yehuda Lancry, termed the resolution balanced -- "which is quite a novelty for Israel," he said.
Still, expectations for Zinni's mission are low.
"The feeling is that stopping things from hemorrhaging is something," Makovsky said. Zinni also might be able to restart Israeli-Palestinian security coordination, Makovksy said, but little more than that.
Zinni is likely to focus on getting Israel and the Palestinian Authority to move straight to a work plan laid out by CIA Director George Tenet -- including security discussions and arrest of terrorists -- to ensure a cease-fire.
That is designed to allow for a cooling off period, followed by the Mitchell Plan of confidence-building measures leading to a resumption of peace talks.
"The first step toward any political solution has got to be the Tenet plan," Bush said in announcing Zinni's return.
Because the Tenet plan requires various anti-terror steps from Arafat initially, American officials hoped the Israeli government would go for it. From Israel, it demands an end to the policy of targeted killings of Palestinian militants and the removal of troops from areas under Palestinian Authority control.
Sharon had said Israel would not begin the Tenet plan until the Palestinians stop their attacks for a week, but changed course over the weekend amid mounting pressure.
He now says Israel can negotiate, even with the violence. Indeed, Sharon has seemed uncharacteristically eager in the last week to meet U.S. requests.
He lifted Arafat's travel ban on Monday, allowing the Palestinian leader to move around the West Bank and Gaza, fulfilling his pledge to lift the siege with the arrest of the final suspect in the assassination of Israel's tourism minister.