WASHINGTON – President Bush, calling the creation of a free and peaceful Palestinian state possible within his second term, promised Friday to use the next four years “to spend the capital of the United States on such a state.”
Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, meeting with reporters between a two-day series of conferences, contended free elections and the establishment of a democratic Palestinian state will be the precursor to any lasting Middle East peace.
“We’ll do whatever it takes to get a peace,” Bush said, as the two leaders issued a five-point statement of strategy aimed at paving the way for final peace talks. Blair, echoing Bush’s comments, said: “What we will do is anything that is necessary to make the strategy work.”
The agreement of the two world leaders on the day the former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was buried at his West Bank compound could lend new impetus to Bush’s “two-state vision” for Israelis and Palestinians. Or it could prove to be another false start in a years-long series of peace initiatives marred by fatal violence in the region.
“It’s coming at a time when you have the end of an era, so it certainly marks a potential, but I know something about Middle East potentials,” said Dennis Ross, who served as special U.S. envoy to the Middle East under former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. “What today reflects is a commitment. Now everyone will watch to see how you act on that commitment.”
The Bush-Blair strategy is outlined in their general, five-point statement.
It commits the leaders to the two-state vision of Israel and a Palestinian state; promises to support Palestinians as they select a new president within 60 days and plan for election of democratic institutions; pledges to “mobilize” international support for a stronger economy and security in the Palestinian state; endorses Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw Israeli settlements from Gaza; and maintains all this will “lay the basis for more rapid progress” on Bush’s “road map for peace,” which includes the dismantling of terrorist organizations.
The Bush administration, however, has stopped short of appointing a special envoy modeled after the peace brokers whom previous presidents have assigned to the task. Ross suggests it will take either an ambassador with those credentials or someone highly placed in the Bush administration to make the U.S. commitment clear.
A senior White House official said Friday the United States and Britain want to encourage the democratic elections that are essential to a longer-range prospect for peace before assigning an envoy or establishing broader, formal peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis.
“For right now, we don’t need to think about a conference and an envoy,” the official said. “We need to get this work done. We know what the work is. … We can do a lot more now on building the institutions of a Palestinian state. And they’ve got to be built now, not after the formal announcement of statehood.
“There may come a time when the president decides a conference would be useful now, an envoy would be useful now,” this official said. “Clearly, he hasn’t made that judgment today.”
Both Bush and Blair expressed optimism and determination as Palestinians go about choosing a new leader.
“I believe we’ve got a great chance to establish a Palestinian state and I intend to use the next four years … to spend the capital of the United States on such a state,” Bush said.
Bush, who will travel to Chile and Colombia next week, also signaled Friday he plans to visit Europe “as soon as possible” after inauguration in January to start repairing frayed relations. Another White House official said Friday that probably means February, and while no details are known yet the administration wanted to “plant a sort of metaphorical flag” to let Europeans know Bush is coming.
“I will work to deepen our trans-Atlantic ties to nations of Europe,” said Bush, contending the challenges ahead demand that “America, the United Kingdom and all of Europe must act together.”