‘I think it is time for a change,’ he said in the West Bank town of Ramallah on 28 November, at the end of his initial round of meetings. ‘We need to end the violence and we need to get back on track towards peace.’

Zinni, a former head of US Central Command, met Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat earlier in the day, concluding a three-day tour of Israel and the West Bank. Arafat said the meeting had been ‘intensive and important’ and that he was ‘going to make a 100 per cent effort’ to secure a ceasefire with Israel.

The retired Marine Corps general said he has been keen ‘to see the difficulties presented to the Palestinians’ at first hand. The US entourage, which also included assistant secretary of state William Burns, toured the West Bank by car before their meeting with Arafat to get a closer look at Jewish settlements, one of the main catalysts of the 14-month intifada. The previous day, Zinni and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon flew by helicopter over the region, hovering over the Israeli city of Afula minutes after two Palestinians shot two Israelis and were themselves gunned down by police.

Zinni was not the only new face in the new round of peace talks. Sharon caused consternation within his own government with the 26 November appointment of a hardline negotiating team headed by retired general Meir Dagan. The sidelining of Foreign Affairs Minister Shimon Peres has widened rifts within Israel’s coalition government. ‘Now facing the American mediators are three outspoken rightists whose outlook is the diametrical opposite of our own,’ Ophir Pines-Paz, a colleague of Peres in the Labour party, told Army Radio on 27 November. ‘Should we sit back and give this our rubber stamp?’