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A little after Shabbat ended, I asked a highly knowledgeable official in Jerusalem for his opinion on the American decision to send Middle East peace envoy Anthony Zinni to our region, and, this time, as a presidential emissary rather than merely as a representative of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. The official drew my attention to the fact that, despite the deterioration in the situation, President George W. Bush did not instruct Zinni to board the first plane for Tel Aviv. If streams of Jewish and Arab blood really worried Bush, the official said, the president would not have allowed Jews and Arabs to keep fighting until Tuesday, or perhaps Wednesday.

"American involvement," noted the official sadly, is like a drop of oil atop stormy waters: "In order to bring about serious American involvement, a terrible storm will have to hit this region."

A few hours after this conversation, dozens of men, women and children were added to the list of dead and wounded Israelis and Palestinians. Israel Defense Forces planes continued to attack targets in the territories and the radio reported alerts concerning possible terrorist attacks throughout Israel. And what was Zinni doing at the time? According to a clarification made with the Foreign Ministry, he spent the weekend with his family in Williamsburg, Virginia. Up until yesterday afternoon, Jerusalem had not received final information as to the arrival time of the American peace team. In accordance with an unwritten code in this region, every additional day without the envoy-for-a-cease-fire is one more day of exchanges of fire.

In contrast with the fog surrounding Zinni's visit, its duration and goals, Vice President Richard B. Cheney's visit to the region, scheduled for next week, has been planned down to the last detail. Reports reaching Jerusalem indicate that the Zinni mission is nothing but a prelude to Cheney's visit. The importance of Zinni's visit is the very fact that it is taking place, not the hopes that no one is pinning on it for a real cooling-down of tensions. The decision to send him to this region was not arrived at in the wake of the recommendation of American ambassadors in the Middle East, who were summoned last week to Washington for a special consultation.

Although most of the ambassadors warned that continued escalation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict could hurt the stability of pro-American regimes, the central consideration that led to Zinni's mission was the desire to ensure that this conflict would not hamper Cheney's efforts to mobilize Arab support for a confrontation with Iraq, and perhaps also with Iran. Zinni's visit was also essential to smooth the feathers of the heads of the states in the European Union, who sent their representative, Xavier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, to Washington to complain about the United States' ineffectiveness and to threaten independent European initiatives.

To sum up, in order to strengthen the argument that Bush did not really believe that Zinni's next mission would be any more successful than his prior ones, the highly knowledgeable official drew my attention to a report that appeared in Ha'aretz on January 24. According to that report, the U.S. had replaced the week of calm Israel was demanding as a precondition for the implementation of a truce by an alternative menu that included, along with a list of wanted terrorists that should be apprehended, a list of preachers in mosques that should be replaced. Thus, the component Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has decided to remove from the equation was removed a long time ago.

The chance that Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat will swallow the security main course in the old-new menu without being promised a diplomatic dessert is smaller than the chance that he will be able to impose a week of absolute calm on the territories. This fact is nothing new for the Americans. Anyone who listens carefully to the voices coming out of Washington understands that the catastrophe that has befallen Israel has not changed the Americans' message one iota: "The lives of Israeli children and Palestinian children are no more important in our eyes than they are in the eyes of Israeli leaders and Palestinian leaders. As long as you, adult Israelis and adult Palestinians, allow those leaders to continue killing your children, you have no right to complain about our actions."