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Anthony Zinni understands warfare. George Tenet is an expert in intelligence. George Mitchell is a master of conducting difficult peace negotiations (as in Northern Ireland). Here, Tenet and Mitchell have already become "reports."

They are no longer flesh-and-blood people, but groups of papers. Their names are chanted like mantras, endlessly repeated to exorcise any threat of any possible resumption of the peace process.

We can surmise that Zinni will soon produce a report that will be named after him. The U.S. administration will then call on all sides to implement the Zinni recommendations, in order to move on to implementing the Tenet Report, which is the road map to the Mitchell Report, which will lead to the starting point of negotiations that will (of course) draw on the principles of the Oslo agreement, which grew out of the Madrid process.

This list of interim mediators isn't intended to make fun of the huge efforts made by administrations over the years to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the contrary, those efforts have taught Israel how to steel itself in the face of mediators, and therein lies their major contribution. The negotiations are no longer about peace but about mediation, and thus they bypass any substantial issues.

For example, Zinni's mission is intended to bring about the implementation of one article of the Tenet Report - the temporary cease-fire, which has been designated a seven-day affair. Maybe he will pull it off and maybe he won't, but in Israel the first thing that is checked is whether Zinni has an Arab past or is neutral, meaning pro-Israel. That is to say, what the most effective ways to maneuver him are.

To ensure that Zinni won't arrive unprepared, the prime minister has explained publicly that Palestinian terrorism hasn't ceased for even one minute - a fact that is true in itself, but not relevant for a mission that is intended to bring about a cease-fire. It's very important, though, if you want to level accusations and create a "convenient" background for a mission that is already being perceived as having the goal of finding the guilty party, with the supreme objective of those who are the objects of the mediation being only to emerge with a "good" report.

Evidence of this perception of things can be found in the way the sides reacted to the address on the Middle East delivered last week by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. Israel and the Palestinians reported satisfaction because, in a relatively balanced manner they both came out of the speech guilty or not guilty to the same degree - not because the speech contained a breakthrough of any sort.

So both the occupation is "to blame" and the Palestinians are shooting, both the settlements are an obstacle to peace and Palestinian terrorism is continuing. Zinni will seek to maintain that balance. In this connection one can only wonder why Tenet isn't doing the mediating this time, if the idea is to implement one of the items in his report. Is it possible that Tenet already knows what Zinni has yet to learn - that mediation for the sake of mediation is a serious waste of time?

Since the Oslo agreement, which was achieved without any mediators at all, mediators have helped bring about only two agreements - Wye and Hebron - both of them products of violations of the Oslo accords as they were framed in the original. Since the onset of the intifada, which has developed into war, no mediator has succeeded in bringing about quiet. That's mainly because the two sides have been swept up in a spiral where any concession is considered a capitulation, or at least a loss of prestige.

That spiral revolves around two rigid positions, one held by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the other by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who have moved the locus of their confrontation to an easier place. Instead of discussing substantive concessions, or the question of the borders, or how to find an acceptable formula for the refugees' right of return, they are discussing concessions on the field of battle. That discussion is now the only substitute for the political negotiations, because it offers each side the option of emerging the victor, because each side can always count on the other side to violate its commitment to a cease-fire, or to stopping the incitement, or to abandoning terrorism, or to forsaking the targeted assassinations.

Given the scope that the battlefield offers for violations, there can hardly be a place for the political option. So, with both Israel and the United States sticking to the formula that there will be no negotiations under fire, and with no binding plan, not even an imposed plan, to bridge between a cease-fire and the vision of the Palestinian state, Retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni can be no more than a linesman.