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Bush mulls 'provisional' Palestinian state

From John King
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush is considering calling for a "provisional" Palestinian state as part of a new statement on the Middle East, but has not made a decision, the White House confirmed Thursday.

Several senior officials mentioned spirited discussions over whether being specific about such issues as borders and a timetable for statehood was worth the possibility that one or both sides would immediately object and derail the new administration initiative.

Some said there was a united view within the administration about the overall goal of the strategy -- but there were disagreements over how fast to push for certain steps and how trusting to be of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's promise to implement reforms.

One knowledgeable source described Vice President Dick Cheney as "skeptical, maybe even a little cynical" on the issue of Arafat.

"He asks, 'What are the guarantees these reforms are real? What are the guarantees these reforms are permanent?'" the source said.

Secretary of State Colin Powell was also skeptical of Arafat's commitment to reform but made the case -- as this source put it -- "that everything else has failed and now is the time to push and try because so many other countries are willing to be part of the effort."

Border issues

Several sources said the idea of proposing an interim or provisional Palestinian state has appeal within the administration. A senior administration official said that was because it would "fundamentally change the nature of the conversation."

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"You would have two sovereign states debating a border dispute, as opposed to one state openly questioning whether there is any right or reason for the other state to exist, or at least exist now under its present leadership," the official said.

Two senior officials said there was broad agreement within the administration that any comprehensive peace agreement creating a permanent Palestinian state would be based on the 1967 lines -- technically armistice lines and not official borders -- with some adjustments, as were negotiated late in the Clinton administration.

In the talks, Israel agreed to relinquish all but 7 percent of the West Bank, and in exchange proposed giving a small percentage of land now considered to be part of Israel proper to the Palestinians.

But if Bush uses the term "1967 borders" in his new statement, it could anger Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who recently insisted Israel could not withdraw to those lines and guarantee its security.

"So maybe you say borders consistent with U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338, which everyone realizes means 1967, but by not saying it so explicitly you move the process forward some and leave the exact details for another round," said one person involved in recent deliberations.

Timing and right of return

Another internal administration debate was on how specific Bush should be on the issue of the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

Two sources, one inside the government and one involved in recent discussions with the administration, said the administration realized a statement on the right of return was critical to the new principles having credibility with the Palestinians.

"But it can be an explosive issue with Sharon," one of the sources said, strongly suggesting Bush was likely to adopt more general language in this regard for now, along the lines of "calling for a just settlement of the issue consistent with Israel's demographic concerns."

Yet another debate centered on whether to set a timetable for agreement on a permanent Palestinian state, something Bush has said he was not yet prepared to do, in part because of his reservations about Arafat's leadership.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt have pressed for a U.S. commitment to a firm timetable, including in discussions over the past week.

One source familiar with the discussions said he sensed a reluctance to "say in three years, because then even if it collapses it is egg on their face. So can you say 'within several years' and be seen as advancing things? That is one issue I sense as a difficult one for them."

Several sources, including senior government officials, said Bush was certain to call on the Palestinian Authority to continue reforms, such as drafting a new constitution, creating credible governmental institutions -- including finance and education ministries -- and moving quickly to implement security reforms.

At the same time, the sources said Bush was all but certain to say that for the Palestinians to have a reasonable chance to meet those tests, Israel must withdraw all troops at least to the lines of September 28 of last year, and begin to release Palestinian economic assets frozen during the latest intifada.

As for when Bush would announce the new guidelines or principles, some officials said it could come as early as next week, while others said there were too many unresolved issues and it would take a little more time than that.

"Look at it in reverse," one senior official said. "You need to have the principles out in time for people to digest before a summer ministerial conference -- and the target for that is July."

Bush chose his words carefully when asked about the administration deliberations on Thursday.

"I'm listening to a lot of opinion," Bush said during a meeting with Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

"There's one thing for certain that I strongly believe, and that is that we must build the institutions necessary for the evolution of a Palestinian state, which can live peacefully in the region and provide hope for the suffering Palestinian people."




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