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Bush confers with Sharon

Thursday, June 20, 2002

AP Diplomatic Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush assured Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a telephone call Thursday that he was trying to find a way to bolster Israel's security even while providing hope for the Palestinian people.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said "most of the conversation was about condolence and sympathy for what Israel is going through."

At the State Department, meanwhile, Secretary of State Colin Powell telephoned the foreign ministers of Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to urge them to improve prospects for Bush's pending declaration on Palestinian statehood by doing what they could to deter terror attacks on Israel.

Bush again deferred delivering his speech on a step-by-step approach to statehood amid a spate of attacks on Israel. The White House said he was waiting, to see Yasser Arafat's latest denunciation of terrorism turned into action.

"The progress the president is looking for is action. The progress the president is looking for is not rhetorical; it's meaningful and the president is waiting to see," Fleischer said.

The president's call to Sharon was 10 to 15 minutes long. Their conversation on Bush's peace proposal was only general, Fleischer said, with most of the conversation about the bombings in Israel.

"The president reiterated his determination to push for peace and to find a way to provide more security for Israel and hope for the Palestinian people," Fleischer said.

At his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah, Arafat condemned attacks on Israeli civilians and called on Palestinian militias to completely halt the shootings and bombings. After this week's bloody attacks, the Israeli government decided to seize Palestinian areas and hold them until the terrorism stops.

Arafat's role in forming a state is the subject of intensive debate among Bush's foreign policy advisers, a U.S. official told The Associated Press.

There is agreement statehood should be contingent on reform, but there is a "real debate" over whether it can be attained with Arafat in charge, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In the meantime, setting up a Mideast peace conference remains an elusive goal. There is no date, site or agenda ready yet, the official said.

The crush of events forced Bush to temporarily shelve an announcement of his plan for creating an independent Palestine. "I'll give it at the appropriate time," Bush said Thursday.

He called in his senior foreign policy advisers to consider what to do next.

"I believe this great country, if we're steadfast and strong, we stand to our principles and stick to our guns, that we can help achieve peace," Bush said Wednesday night at a Republican fund-raiser.

Bush had hoped to gain Israel's support by making statehood contingent on democratic reform within the Palestinian movement. And he had hoped to please Arab leaders with his plan to get statehood started in provisional form.

But back-to-back terror attacks in Jerusalem hardened Israel's skepticism, and Bush decided to sit it out for a while as Israeli forces moved back onto the West Bank.

Administration officials said Bush would wait for a relative moment of Mideast calm because a presidential announcement at this sensitive stage in the Arab-Israeli conflict would be unlikely to have a positive impact.

"It's obvious that the immediate aftermath is not the right time," Fleischer said, making plain that Bush has decided on his message. "The president wants to give a speech at a time when it will have the maximum impact to bring the maximum prospects for peace to the region and the president will make that determination about what that time is."

Bush's speech is likely to slip to next week, aides said. Though a Friday morning address was still possible, aides are considering slotting the address for the eve of the Group of Eight summit early next week in Canada. It also could come during or directly after the summit.

Making the speech around the summit would allow Bush to highlight support for his proposal among leaders of those other countries, aides said.

Asked whether Bush's policy was hostage to the will of terrorists, Fleischer replied: "Terrorists put everybody at hostage."

Late in the day, Bush met at the White House with Secretary of State Colin Powell and other advisers who are part of the National Security Council.

Some of the president's advisers, such as Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, have argued within administration circles that any timetable for a Palestinian state would reward terrorists.

Still, officials said, Bush's plan includes creating a Palestinian state with provisional boundaries within a year -- contingent on democratic reform -- and negotiating permanent borders within three years. Some advisers wanted to set up the state by September, simultaneously with a Mideast peace conference.

Also, the officials said, Bush plans to ask Israel to stop building homes for settlers on the West Bank and in Gaza, where the Palestinians would make their state.

He intends to sidestep the tough issue of Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want half of.

Even before the two bombings, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had said the timing was wrong for a Palestinian state. On the Arab side, there was widespread disappointment that Bush did not intend to go far enough toward a full-fledged state.


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