WASHINGTON – President Bush has decided to inject a double dose of American diplomacy into the current morass of the Middle East, sending Special Envoy Ret. Marine General Anthony Zinni back to the region just as the vice president travels there too.
Bush said he ordered Zinni's return in hopes of halting widening violence as envisioned in a peace plan put forward by CIA Director George Tenet.
"Because of our commitment to peace, I'm sending General Tony Zinni back to the region next week to work with Israel and the Palestinians to begin implementing the Tenet work plan so that the parties can renew their efforts for a broader peace," said Bush, who was joined by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Cheney will begin a 10-day, 12-country tour of the region Sunday to meet with leaders to discuss the situation in the Middle East as well as the war on terror. Among his topics will most certainly be a peace proposal offered by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah, who has proposed Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for land, a suggestion that has sparked interest among the Bush administration.
Bush's announcement came just hours after White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Zinni would not be returning unless there was an "opening where a return by General Zinni would do some good."
Bush said his administration has had many consultations with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat over the past week aimed at breaking the 17-month continuous cycle of violence.
On Thursday, 11 Palestinians were killed and more than 20 injured in fighting. In the West Bank, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up in a hotel at the entrance to a Jewish settlement, and an Israeli motorist was shot and seriously wounded.
In retaliation, Israel broadened its assault on Palestinian targets, raiding two West Bank refugee camps, shelling Palestinian police positions and firing missiles at Yasser Arafat's headquarters as he met there with the European Union's Mideast envoy. The blast blew out windows in the room where the two met moments before.
Just a day before, Powell, speaking to a Senate panel, warned Sharon that a declaration of war should be reconsidered.
"Mr. Sharon must reconsider his policies — if you declare war on the Palestinians and think you can solve the problem by seeing how many Palestinians can be killed — I don't know that leads us anywhere," he told a House Appropriations Subcommittee.
Sharon bit back Thursday, saying he has not declared war.
"Israel fights back against terror organizations in the framework of its right of self defense. He who started this war has the power to stop it, but continues to prefer a war of terrorism," he said in a written statement.
Asked Thursday whether Powell's comments were too hard on Sharon, Bush said he thought the secretary of state balanced them with equally harsh remarks to Arafat, whom he said has not done enough to stem the suicide bombings originating from Palestinian territories.
Bush also said that he understands Sharon's desire to protect his people and enhance security, but he must take the next step.
"I believe what we're saying, though, is that there has got to be a vision for peace, there's got to be more than security, there's got to be an attempt to achieve a lasting peace and I hope that my friend Prime Minister Sharon agrees with that assessment," Bush said.
Independently of the announcement, the State Department urged Israel on Thursday to halt the assaults that have raised the civilian death toll in Palestinian areas.
The attacks "clearly work against the overriding objective of reducing violence and returning to negotiations," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
"Such actions should be halted now," he said. "It is imperative that the Israel Defense Force exercise the utmost restraint and discipline to avoid further harm to civilians."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.