WASHINGTON – The Bush administration on Wednesday welcomed an accord between Yasser Arafat and his designated prime minister on a Palestinian Cabinet, and called for speedy confirmation by the Palestinian parliament.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the deal, which reversed sharp disagreement between Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, was an important step toward carrying out a blueprint for a Palestinian state "and a better situation for Israelis and Palestinians."
Boucher reiterated the administration's view that the Palestinians needed new leadership and new institutions.
President Bush, in a three-way phone call with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, renewed his promise that approval by the Palestinian parliament would trigger the release of a plan by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia. The centerpiece of the "road map" is creation of a Palestinian state by 2005 as part of a negotiated settlement with Israel.
Bush also spoke with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, thanking him for his "efforts to encourage" the formation of a new Palestinian Cabinet, said spokesman Sean McCormack. The compromise apparently was brokered with the help of the Egyptians.
Boucher reaffirmed that Secretary of State Colin Powell planned to go to the region, but offered no schedule or timetable.
With Iraq commanding less of his time, Bush is prepared to apply pressure on Israel and the Palestinians to put in place the road map for a settlement, Powell said in a PBS interview Tuesday.
Powell said Arafat's dispute with Abbas over a new security minister was an attempt to derail Abbas from forming a cabinet.
"He's still there, and he is still not showing the kind of leadership that we need in a Palestinian leader," Powell said.
Unless Abbas can move ahead, Powell said, "an opportunity of enormous importance will be lost and Arafat will have done it again."
"The ones who will suffer the most: the Palestinian people as well as the innocent lives that might be lost as this crisis continues," he said.
Powell said the administration remained concerned about Iran's development of weapons of mass destruction and its support for terrorism.
"We believe the Russians have provided them assistance, which will ultimately flow into their nuclear weapons development program," he said. "We've discussed this rather candidly with the Russians."
Within Iran, Powell said, "there is a good deal of churning," with a very large young population looking beyond the country to the international community.
"They want to be part of that world. They want to be part of that community. And they are applying pressure to both their political leadership and their religious leadership," he said.
Boucher said the dispute between Arafat and Abbas was hurting the Palestinian people and delaying them from gaining statehood.
While Boucher said it was up to the Palestinians, and not the United States, to choose their leader, he backed Abbas on the key item in dispute — picking a security chief.
"There is every reason to support the idea that the prime minister needs to be able to choose his cabinet," Boucher said.
At the White House, spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush had "high hopes that an agreement can be reached so that reforms can go forward."