WASHINGTON – No definitive word yet on the timing or content of a speech President Bush is expected to deliver this week on the Middle East, but a source who has seen the draft told Fox News on Monday that it is similar in length to an April 4 Rose Garden speech in which the president laid out conditions each side must meet before peace is possible.
Privately, sources say the president will likely avoid mention of Jerusalem's future, the most sensitive issue to Jews and Muslims. Bush has also said in the past that a Palestinian state is dependent on democratic reforms in the Palestinian Authority led by Yasser Arafat.
Publicly, however, administration officials are keeping a tight lid on the president's expected four-and-a-half page speech.
"The president has continued to review what he's heard over the past few weeks. He's talking to his top advisers. And he'll decide how best to move forward. So I'm not going to get into any kind of handicapping of the various ideas that may or may not appear," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.
Meanwhile, the State Department criticized Israel for planning to build an electronic fence around the length of the West Bank akin to the Berlin Wall, which fell in 1989 after 37 years of separating East and West Germany.
Israeli supporters say the hope for the West Bank wall would be its ability to block out Palestinian bombers in the same way a heavily-guarded barrier separating the Gaza Strip does.
"To the extent that it is an attempt to establish a border, we would have to say that that really has to be done through direct talks" with Palestinian officials, Boucher said. "We do remind the Israelis that offering hope to Palestinians, offering them a decent life, an end to the barriers, is an important part of achieving security and peace."
The president's wife, Laura, chimed in with her own criticism of Israel's move. "I don't think that a fence will be some long-lasting sign of peace," she said.
"Right now, there's a huge barrier of hate and distrust between all the parties in the Middle East," Mrs. Bush said on American Urban Radio Networks. "I hope they can start to at least tear that barrier down."
However, Ephraim Sneh, Israel's transportation minister and a retired general, said the fence would serve a defensive purpose.
"The purpose is to make the penetration of suicide bombers to Israel impossible," he said at the National Press Club. Suicide bombers now cross easily into Israeli towns and villages, he said. "It's about to put an end to it," he said.
The White House has said resolutely that Israel has a right to defend itself, but is trying to distance itself from the construction of the fence, aimed to separate physically the Palestinians and Israelis.
"All parties have to be aware of the consequences of their actions," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
Bush's deliberations, after a weekend at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, follow a series of meetings with Arab and Israeli leaders.
On Friday, Yasser Arafat's emissaries proposed more formal statehood that would start with the withdrawal of Israeli forces from all of the West Bank, Gaza and part of Jerusalem. The proposal submitted to Secretary of State Colin Powell demands construction of Jewish settlements be frozen, but sets no timeline for statehood. It also leaves room for negotiation on the discussion of returning Palestinian diaspora to the region.
Arafat, however, was not pleased with comments by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to a San Jose newspaper in which she said the Palestinian Authority cannot be the basis of a future Palestinian state because it is "corrupt and cavorts with terror."
"She does not have the right to put or impose orders on us about what to do or what not to do. We are doing what we see as good for our people and we do not accept any orders from anyone," Arafat said.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has declared statehood "premature", an oft-repeated remark by Israeli officials.
"Right now, when terrorism persists against the state of Israel, even the very discussion of a Palestinian state, at this point, is really premature and likely to be misunderstood especially by the Palestinians themselves," Sharon adviser Dore Gold said.
But Bush, who is considering a timeline, has received support from Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
On Monday, Bush again suspended building of a U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. When he campaigned for president, he said he would move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thereby acknowledging Israel's claim that the city is its capital.
Because statehood would be provisional, some Arab leaders have expressed skepticism about the idea, insisting that normal statehood should be forthcoming promptly.
Fox News' James Rosen and the Associated Press contributed to this report.