WASHINGTON – Back-to-back bombings in Jerusalem prompted President Bush on Wednesday to put his prescription for Palestinian statehood on hold.
Bush had hoped to spur Israel and the Palestinian Authority to begin mapping a state with the support of the United States and the world community.
But in light of the two Palestinian terror attacks in two days, administration officials said a presidential announcement at this sensitive stage in the Arab-Israeli conflict would be unlikely to have a positive impact.
"It's obvious that the immediate aftermath is not the right time," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. "The president wants to give a speech at a time when it will have the maximum impact to bring the maximum prospects for peace to the region and the president will make that determination about what that time is."
Fleischer made plain that Bush has decided on his message, but was waiting for the right moment. "It's hard to get people to focus on peace today when there's still suffering from the consequences of terrorism as we speak," the spokesman said.
How long Bush might hold off was being considered by the president and his advisers, who themselves were split on whether it was wise for the United States to be endorsing statehood while Israel was under renewed terror attack.
Aides said the president is waiting for a relative moment of calm in the Middle East to unveil his plan, meaning it might be delayed until next week.
Asked whether Bush's policy was hostage to the will of terrorists, Fleischer replied: "Terrorists put everybody at hostage."
Bush is due to go to Canada early next week for a meeting with the leaders of seven other industrialized democracies and could use the forum to gather support for his plan.
Some of the president's advisers, such as Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, have argued within administration circles that any timetable for a Palestinian state would reward terrorists.
Still, officials said, Bush's plan includes creating a Palestinian state with provisional boundaries within a year and negotiating permanent borders within three years. Some advisers wanted to set up the state by September, simultaneously with a Mideast peace conference.
Also, the officials said, Bush plans to ask Israel to stop building homes for settlers on the West Bank and in Gaza, where the Palestinians would make their state.
He intends to sidestep the tough issue of Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want half of.
Even before the two bombings, the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had said the timing was wrong for a Palestinian state. On the Arab side of the dispute, there was widespread disappointment that Bush did not intend to go far enough toward a full-fledged state.
He had an interim body in mind, with step-by-step progress toward full and sovereign self-rule alongside Israel, dependent on democratic reform within the Palestinian Authority.
There is real uncertainty what Bush should say and when to say it, a senior official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity
Put on hold, as well, was a trip to the Middle East next week by Secretary of State Colin Powell, though it remains under consideration.
"There are no travel plans for Secretary Powell at this point," said Philip Reeker, a State Department spokesman, adding, "The president and Secretary Powell are reviewing the next steps."
At the same time, he said, "The Palestinian Authority has to do far more to curb the attacks."
Between the two attacks, the Israeli government said in Jerusalem it intended to recapture the Palestinian-held territory on the West Bank and said, "These areas will be held by Israel as long as terror continues."
As Israeli troops moved into three West Bank towns early Wednesday, Fleischer said: "The president understands Israel's right to self-defense, particularly in the wake of an attack of this severity."
Administration officials said Fleischer's remarks were not intended to endorse Israel's actions but to acknowledge the pressure on Sharon to act in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. The administration hopes the Israeli policy is not permanent because it would collide with Bush's push for a provisional Palestinian state, officials said.