US Secretary of State Colin Powell launched a fresh round of talks yesterday aimed at persuading wary Israeli and Palestinian leaders to start implementing a US-backed "road map" for Middle East peace.
Powell, leading the highest-level US peacemaking effort in more than a year, met Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem before he was due to see Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank town of Jericho.
Expectations for a breakthrough were low because of the gulf of mistrust between the two sides, sharp differences on key issues and scepticism about US commitment.
Powell began his mission late on Saturday with an appeal to both sides to take quick conciliatory steps and not get bogged down in squabbling over the plan.
"There is enough agreement on the road map that we can get started," Powell said at the start of the regional visit which he said signalled President George W. Bush's determination to move forward on Israeli-Palestinian peace after the Iraq war.
"There is a need to end terror now. There is a need to take some steps that will make life a little better for the Palestinian people," Powell told a news conference.
After 31 months of bloodshed, neither side was anxious to make the first move. Just hours after Powell's arrival, Palestinian gunmen killed a settler driving near the Jewish settlement of Ofra in the West Bank, police said.
Settlements on land captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war have been frequent targets of militants who have rejected the road map and vowed to keep up their armed uprising.
Sources close to Sharon said even before the shooting that Israel would balk at troop pullbacks prescribed by the road map until the new Palestinian government reined in militant groups.
Instead, the sources said, Sharon planned several humanitarian gestures such as restoring Palestinian fishing rights off Gaza, easing the transfer of goods between Israel and Palestinian areas, and releasing several dozen detainees.
Shortly after Powell's arrival, the army said Palestinian labourers, temporarily barred from Israel during a security alert for recent Israeli holidays, could return to work.
But Israeli roadblocks remain around Palestinian cities, a measure Israel says helps stop suicide bombers from reaching its cities. Palestinians condemn it roundly as unnecessary collective punishment.