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US shifts its role in Mideast peace

It will shun high-profile diplomacy, playing facilitator instead of enforcer.

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When Israeli and Palestinian leaders announced plans for a cessation of hostilities against each other Tuesday, there was no high US official in sight prodding the two sides along.

That's just the way the White House wanted it.

Maintaining some of the deep skepticism over high-profile US involvement that marked its first-term vision of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Bush administration is pursuing a new tack in what all sides agree is a moment of opportunity.

The US will step up its engagement with the Palestinians while reminding Israel of the "hard choices" it faces on the road to peace - two things Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did on her brief stop in the region this week. But in doing so, the US will act more as the facilitator than the enforcer.

Extending a bit of President Bush's "ownership" philosophy to the conflict, the US is now going on the assumption that real progress in what is still a very complex and dangerous process won't be made until the two sides make the steps forward on their own.

"The administration has become firmly convinced that only if the two sides hammer out agreements between themselves is any agreement going to be able to be sold to the two peoples," says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Secretary of State Rice feels very comfortable with the idea that the US should provide every support to the two sides in the negotiations, but that the negotiations really have to be between the two sides if they are going to stick."

The tone Condoleezza Rice set

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