US to step up peacemaking efforts in Middle East

AP , WASHINGTON

Sun, Jan 23, 2005 - Page 6

The US is seizing on a lull in terror attacks on Israel to send the State Department's ranking Mideast official to the region next week to assess chances of serious peacemaking between Israel and Palestinian leaders.

Announcement Friday of the trip by Assistant Secretary of State William Burns to Israel, Palestinian areas and Egypt was coupled with a positive US response to thousands of armed Palestinian police taking up positions in northern Gaza to deter attacks on Israel.

Simultaneously, violent Palestinian groups that have been conducting a guerrilla war against Israel promised to suspend their rocket fire.

There have been pauses in their assaults in the past, but with a new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, taking over from Yasser Arafat and the administration envisioning opportunities for the Palestinians to get a state the latest pledge by Hamas could be an indication of a possible cease-fire.

Even so, Hamas, which the State Department has denounced as a terrorist organization, remains sworn to Israel's destruction.

Steps taken by Abbas, meanwhile, to tighten security are reason for encouragement, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

"We have always stressed how important it is for the Palestinians to organize themselves to end the violence, and we welcome steps that are being taken in that direction," he said.

Also, Boucher said the Bush administration was pleased with security coordination between Israel and Palestinians. He said again that Palestinian leaders must send a clear message that terror will not be tolerated.

Burns has already been in telephone contact several times with Abbas. And while his schedule was withheld by the State Department it appears obvious that Burns will meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders while also going to Egypt to see officials there.

At Senate hearings this week, Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice forecast a concerted and personal involvement in Mideast peacemaking.

Egypt has become more active, as well, and there are reports it will host a high-level meeting in Cairo between Palestinian and Hamas leaders in a move toward a cease-fire.