WASHINGTON – President Bush will meet at the end of the week with Saudi Arabia's foreign minister and then "in the very near future" set out his views on achieving Palestinian statehood and bolstering Israel's security, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Tuesday.
Prince Saud is expected to renew an Arab demand for prompt action by Bush to set up a Palestinian state and to pressure Israel to give up all of the West Bank, Gaza and part of Jerusalem.
Saud's meeting with the president will conclude a round of U.S. consultation with Arab and Israeli leaders and "in the very near future he will make clear his views on how to move forward," Powell said at a joint news conference with Prime Minister John Howard of Australia.
Powell also reaffirmed the administration's determination to hold a Mideast conference this summer, and he said Israel's latest foray into Ramallah is likely to be a brief one.
Howard, meanwhile, called the Arab-Israeli dispute "intractable" and praised the Bush administration for its efforts.
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon thanked members of the House and Senate for their support for Israel and his policies.
Sharon came to Washington to ensure his views were reflected in Bush's proposals and to continue his vigorous wooing of Congress. He had coffee with Senate leaders, conferred with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including the chairman, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., and then with members of the House.
"There is no disagreement in this country on support for Israel," said Biden, D-Del.
Hosting Sharon in the White House as Israeli troops surrounded Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's West Bank headquarters Monday, Bush said Israel has a right to defend itself and suggested conditions are not ripe for a Middle East peace conference.
Bush criticized Arafat's performance and echoed Sharon's calls for a thorough overhaul of Palestinian institutions.
The day before the meeting, the two leaders' sixth in office, the president dampened Arab hopes for the United States to set a schedule for Palestinian statehood.
"We're not ready to lay down a specific calendar," he said.
Sharon wanted assurances from Bush during his visit that the United States would not impose a deadline or move too fast toward a peace process.
"We achieved what we wanted," a senior official in the Israeli party said.
Briefing reporters on condition of anonymity, the official said sensitive subjects, such as Israel's refusal to withdraw to its 1967 borders or U.S. dislike of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, were simply not raised during Monday's meeting in the Oval Office or the lunch that followed.
Bush said dramatic change within the Palestinian Authority is needed before progress toward peace can be made. He suggested a Middle East peace conference will not be conducted soon.
"The conditions aren't even there yet. That's because no one has confidence in the emerging Palestinian government," Bush said.
Sitting at Bush's side, Sharon insisted that violence must end totally before peace can be achieved. He said of Arafat: "At present time, we don't see yet a partner."
Bush said Arafat had let down his people.
"I am disappointed that he has not led in such a way that the Palestinian people have hope and confidence," the president said.
Monday's session was probably the last high-level consultation Bush will have before he unveils his own plans to jump-start the stalled peace process.
The Israeli official said Sharon was acutely aware that political relations with the United States could not be conducted through the White House alone. He cited a recent letter of support for Israel signed by 94 senators and 321 representatives as proof that Sharon's strategy was working.
On Sharon's last visit, in May, he had to cancel scheduled meetings with congressional leaders and rush home in response to a Palestinian suicide bombing that killed 15 Israelis.
Unable to meet face-to-face, Sharon held conference calls with various committee chairmen and other major congressional supporters and now speaks to them on average every couple of days, the official said.
On Monday, the White House defended Israel's latest assault on Arafat's compound.
"Our understanding is that the Israeli operation is limited in duration and it is to go after specific terrorists. And given that understanding, the United States has said before that Israel has a right to defend itself," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters.