AP Diplomatic WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush said Tuesday the idea of a Palestinian state has always been part of the peace process "so long as the right to an Israeli state is respected."
The Sept. 11 attacks on the United States sidetracked an initiative by the Bush administration to launch Israel and the Palestinians into a new peacemaking process that only now is beginning to take shape again, a senior U.S. official said Monday night.
It was understood by Israel as well as the Palestinians that the outcome, if successful, would include creation of a Palestinian state, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Bush addressed the issue after a meeting with congressional leaders Tuesday morning. "The idea of a Palestinian state has always been a part of a vision so long as the right to an Israeli state is respected," he said.
First things first, he said -- reducing the level of violence that has wracked the region this year. "I fully understand that progress is made in centimeters in the Middle East," Bush said. "And we believe we're making some progress."
The administration planned to make its efforts public at the special session of the U.N. General Assembly set for Sept. 24, but the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington temporarily sidetracked the plan.
The resumption of high-level talks between Israel and the Palestinians last week, arranged through persistent telephone urging by Secretary of State Colin Powell, has revived momentum to the U.S. drive, the official said.
In the weeks leading up to the scheduled U.N. session, Powell had quietly begun pressing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to reopen peace talks that broke down at the end of the Clinton administration.
Publicly, however, administration officials emphasized mostly a need for an end to violence and the beginning of a peacemaking gestures recommended by a special commission headed by former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.
Powell began his effort amid an escalation of violence that began a year ago and grew more intense with no serious peacemaking in prospect.
The administration had hoped that its high-profile intervention timed to the U.N. meeting would serve as a response to worldwide complaints that the United States was detached from the Arab-Israeli conflict and had lost interest in the peacemaking process. These complaints, the official said, tended to distract attention from other world problems, and could have kept the assembly from addressing a host of serious issues.
By using the General Assembly session to disclose newly energized U.S. interest, administration officials hoped to attract support for its new major push in the region.
The Bush administration's quiet approach stands in sharp contrast to the Clinton administration's prolonged public campaign to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the United States providing its own blueprint for an overall accord.
However, by declaring its intentions publicly, the Bush administration would have taken on a role more like that of its predecessor. In fact, Powell said last week that as Israel and the Palestinians accelerate their meetings, the United States would become progressively more involved.
At the U.N. meeting, which was postponed indefinitely, the Bush administration had planned to outline its overall view of a final settlement, including important questions about borders, the right of Palestinians refugees to return to Israel and possibly the future of Jerusalem, according to The New York Times, which first reported the initiative.
The newspaper also said Bush planned to meet with Arafat during that U.N. gathering in New York.