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Bush Supports the Idea of a Palestinian State

TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Bush said Tuesday that he supports creation of an independent Palestinian state as the last chapter of the Arab-Israeli peace process, but he cautioned that there first must be an end to Middle East violence that has raged for a year.

“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.

Although Bush and top aides insisted that the president has long endorsed Palestinian statehood, the comments seemed to mark the first time he has taken that position in public. Former President Clinton included a Palestinian state in his own peace plan that foundered after the failed Camp David summit in July 2000, but the Bush administration has had little to say about the issue.

With his public backing of a Palestinian state, Bush may be hoping to remove one obstacle to Arab participation in the anti-terrorism coalition he is trying to build. Although most Arab governments have endorsed the U.S. campaign against suspected terrorism leader Osama bin Laden and his cohorts, large segments of the Arab public oppose the plans, in part because of U.S. support for Israel.

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The president’s comments came in response to newspaper reports Tuesday that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was ready to announce a new Middle East peace initiative--with a Palestinian state as one key element--before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, but that the plan was shelved after the assaults.

Responding to the reports in the New York Times and the Washington Post, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, “There was no speech scheduled.”

He added, “We are always considering options of how best to end the violence between Israelis and Palestinians. No decisions like this were made before Sept. 11 on how best to proceed.”

Boucher said Powell had hoped that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations would have made enough progress to put the Middle East peace process in the spotlight during the U.N. General Assembly session that had been scheduled to start Sept. 24. The session was postponed because of the terrorist acts.

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“I think the secretary at one point talked about the possibility that there would be a series of meetings leading up to the United Nations,” Boucher said. “Clearly, Sept. 11 changed a lot of things in terms of timetables and specifics.”

In the wake of the assaults against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there was a lull in Palestinian-Israeli violence, which the administration had set as a prerequisite for a new U.S. initiative. Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered their forces to stop fighting, and Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres have since met to discuss ways to resume peace talks.

Powell said the administration continues to base its Middle East plan on a report this year by a commission headed by former Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), which called for an end to the violence, a series of reciprocal confidence-building measures and a resumption of direct negotiations.

“We’ve had a plan since the administration came into office in January, and that plan was to do everything we could to get violence down to the lowest possible levels in the region, and then . . . embark upon the Mitchell plan,” Powell said.

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