Zinni’s arrival followed two weeks of relative quiet after Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on 16 December announced his call for a cessation of all armed attacks on Israelis. However, Arafat himself has been blockaded inside Ramallah by Israeli troops, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has continued to insist on there being seven consecutive days of absolute quiet before Israel will engage in political discussions with the Palestinian Authority.

Zinni’s original mission, announced by Secretary of State Colin Powell on 19 November, was supposed to be open ended, but he returned to Washington after dozens of people were killed in Palestinian suicide bomb attacks and Israeli assassinations and reprisal raids. This time round, Zinni was scheduled to stay in the region for just four days before reporting back to the administration in Washington.

Zinni’s arrival coincided with the withdrawal of some Israeli forces from West Bank towns.

Despite Sharon’s insistence on putting security before political discussions, it has emerged that Foreign Affairs Minister Shimon Peres has made proposals to the Palestinians on moves towards an early establishment of a Palestinian state. The proposals were contained in a leaked document said to have been presented to Palestinian Legislative Assembly speaker Ahmed Qorei (Abu Alaa) in late December. Sharon is said to have criticised Peres over his initiative.

The Israeli Labour party, of which Peres has been the leading representative in the National Unity government, finally has a new leader following the 26 December election of Defence Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer in a much-delayed election. He defeated Knesset speaker Avraham Burg, whose cause was harmed by the decision of Druze members of the party to boycott the poll.