President ready to present plan for Mideast peace

White House denies action is timed to build support for stance on Iraq

March 15, 2003|By COX NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - President Bush, battling to win greater international support for his stand on Iraq, said yesterday that he was ready to present a "road map" for resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

He said the action awaited only the Palestinian legislature's expected appointment of a prime minister to a position of "real authority."

Speaking briefly at a hastily called appearance in the White House Rose Garden, Bush said, "We have reached a hopeful moment for progress."

"A Palestinian state must be a reformed and peaceful and democratic state that abandons forever the use of terror," Bush said. "The government of Israel, as the terror threat is removed and security improves, must take concrete steps to support the emergence of a viable and credible Palestinian state and to work as quickly as possible toward a final status agreement."

Bush did not answer questions from reporters.

His announcement was generally welcomed by world and U.S. leaders.

The road map, created by the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union - a group known as the Quartet - lays out steps toward settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by 2005, including creation of a Palestinian state.

The next step would be for the road map to be given to the Palestinians and to Israel.

Political reform had been made a condition for moving forward. The Palestinian legislature is expected to act as soon as next week to fill the recently created post of prime minister, with Yasser Arafat remaining at the head of the Palestinian Authority.

Bush has said he does not envision Arafat as head of a new Palestinian state, and White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the continued level of Arafat's power was an unanswered question.

"Yasser Arafat has not shown a history of being willing to relinquish power in reality," Fleischer said, "and so it is an important issue to determine whether or not the Palestinians are indeed engaging in meaningful reforms."

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said U.S. officials had not spoken to Arafat "for some time. We have no plans to do so right now."

White House officials said the timing of the proposal was not related to the tense situation involving U.S. and British efforts to secure passage of another resolution on Iraq at the U.N. Security Council, or to the resistance to a war with Iraq that has been expressed in many Arab nations.

Many have linked anti-American sentiments in the Arab world to anger over what they view as unfair U.S. support for Israel in the conflict with Palestinians.

"This is not dependent on what happens in New York or what happens in Iraq," a senior administration official told reporters shortly after the announcement.

But Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, under increasing pressure at home over his firm alliance with Bush on Iraq, acknowledged at a London news conference that the intense focus on Iraq was a factor in the Mideast peace process.

"It's precisely now that we say to the Arab and Muslim world: We accept the obligation of even-handedness. We accept that it is right now that we have to say to people that the issue of peace between Palestinians and Israelis is as important as any other issue to us," Blair said.

Blair and Bush are to meet tomorrow in the Azores to discuss Iraq with Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar of Spain, another staunch U.S. ally.

Bush's statement, made with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell standing at his side, repeated a number of points he has made before. In calling for Israel to take steps toward the creation of a Palestinian state after terrorism ends, for example, Bush's words nearly echoed his speech last month at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Similarly, Bush repeated his position that "as progress is made toward peace, settlement activity in the occupied territories must end."

Palestinian minister of information Nabil Abu Rdeneh told the Associated Press in Jerusalem, "We appreciate the Bush speech and his commitment to the road map. But what is needed now is immediate implementation of the road map without any changes."

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yoni Peled said, "We see eye to eye with President Bush," Reuters reported.

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