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Tuesday October 2, 04:52 PM
Bush says Palestine part of Mideast vision
By Jonathan Wright
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush says a Palestinian state has "always" been part of Washington's vision for the Middle East but it was vital to first reduce the violence in the region.
"The idea of a Palestinian state has always been a part of a vision, so long as the right of Israel to exist is respected," Bush told reporters.
He was responding to a New York Times report that the Bush administration had planned a Middle East policy initiative, including endorsement of a Palestinian state, shortly before the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
Diplomats confirmed that the Bush administration had been preparing to take a position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and had agreed, at least in principle, that Bush would meet Palestinian President Yasser Arafat during the U.N. General Assembly in New York in late September.
But they also said that the United States had not decided what position to take on the most contentious elements, such as Jerusalem, borders and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
HELPS BUILD ALLIANCE
They noted that the report could make it easier for the United States to bring Arab countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia into its alliance against Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect for the Sept. 11 attacks.
After the attacks, which left more than 5,700 people dead or missing, the Bush administration has poured most of its energies into the campaign against bin Laden. Arab allies say Washington must also address the Middle East conflict.
"It's a very convenient line -- that Bush was going to meet Arafat and look what screwed it up. It serves the interests of the United States, and the Saudis and the Egyptians," said one Middle East diplomat, who asked not to be named.
In itself, U.S. support for a Palestinian state is no surprise, though this would be the first Republican administration to endorse the idea in public.
"Even Israel does not oppose a Palestinian state so I don't think that's an issue. The Palestinian state ... is already an American position as it was made by President Clinton. So it's not new," said Hassan Abdel Rahman, Washington representative of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
"But it's never been said by this administration, so it could help overcome the perception that they are hostile to the Arabs," the Middle East diplomat said.
The Bush administration had decided that Secretary of State Colin Powell would make a speech on Middle East policy at the United Nations but senior officials never decided what specifics it would contain, he said.
STILL IN THE WORKS
"For the very difficult stuff, like Jerusalem and refugees, they would need to get the highest approval and they never got through the process. We heard it was a general policy statement that would reiterate known American positions," he added.
"It was still in the works. They were going to do this and will still do it now, but we don't know when. The Palestinian state is the less controversial aspect and it is the other specifics that count," an Arab diplomat said.
The diplomat said that any initiative would not bypass the U.S view that the Israelis and Palestinians must start by carrying out the Mitchell plan of April. The plan, drafted by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell recommends a cease-fire, a cooling-off period and confidence-building measures.
Bush said the United States was working closely with Israel and the Palestinians to end more than a year of bloodshed and enable a return to peace negotiations.
He said Mitchell had drafted "a viable blueprint that most of the world agrees with as the necessary path to ultimately solving the problems of the Middle East."
More than 750 people, mostly Palestinians, have been killed since the revolt began last year after peace talks stalled.
Palestinian officials in the Middle East said they were sceptical about reports of a postponed U.S. initiative.
"Bush can still do it now. It is always the right time for Bush to declare support for a Palestinian state because it will correct a 50-year-old mistake of not helping to establish a Palestinian state next to the Israeli state," senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Reuters.