WASHINGTON – President Bush's spokesman reacted warmly Friday to much of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's latest prescription for dealing with the Palestinians.
"We were very pleased with the overall speech," spokesman Scott McClellan said in an apparent effort to offset published accounts that focused on his admonition Thursday that Sharon should not try to impose a settlement without negotiations.
On Thursday, McClellan gave mixed reviews to Sharon's speech, calling for a meeting between Sharon and the Palestinian prime minister "very soon" without preconditions and cautioning Israel against unilateral moves.
"We believe that the road map is the way to get to the president's two-state vision" of a democratic Palestinian state existing alongside Israel by 2005, McClellan said Thursday, referring to a blueprint for peacemaking that has the backing of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.
In cautioning Israel against unilateral moves, the White House spokesman had said on Thursday, "The United States believes that a settlement must be negotiated and we would oppose any Israeli effort to impose a settlement."
But in an exchange Friday with reporters, McClellan offered no criticism of Sharon's speech on Thursday in Herzliya (search) in which the prime minister offered to remove some settlements on the West Bank and make other concessions.
Ticking them off, McClellan said Sharon had made "some important pledges" about immediate Israeli actions that include eliminating unauthorized outposts on the West Bank and improving Palestinian life by reducing curfews, roadblocks, checkpoints and closures, and by increasing freedom of movement.
Also, the spokesman noted that Sharon had talked about elements of a freeze on Jewish settlements on the West Bank and in Gaza.
"We are working hard with the parties to move forward to make progress on the road map," McClellan said.
He again called on Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search) to meet soon, face to face.
On Thursday on another touchy issue, McClellan reiterated U.S. concerns about Israel's construction of a security barrier that the Bush administration has worried will dip too far into the West Bank. Sharon said in his speech that the barrier would be speeded up as a prospective, easily defended border with the Palestinians.
"We oppose a route that interferes with the normal Palestinian life or makes building a viable Palestinian state impossible," McClellan said.
"We have said that the fence should not be -- or appear to be -- a pretext for taking land, and it should not be something that presses undue burdens on the Palestinian people," he said.
The White House spokesman noted that Sharon spoke of Israel acting alone to end the half-century Mideast dispute only if peacemaking was stalled by the Palestinians.
"We are continuing to work hard with Israel and the Palestinians to make progress on the road map," McClellan said. "And we don't think it is best at this point to be discussing now what to do if progress is not made."
Sharon, in his speech, said he remains committed to the road map and said the sides can always return to it.
McClellan praised that endorsement by Sharon of the road map, and also praised Sharon's call for removing unauthorized outposts on the West Bank and his pledge not to build new Jewish settlements.
That would be consistent with the blueprint developed by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, McClellan said.
While they favor the removal of Israeli settlements, many Palestinians are suspicious of Sharon's plan, viewing it as a way to restrict them into smaller areas of land in the West Bank.
But Sharon has insisted that unless the Palestinians crack down on extremist groups that launch attacks on Israelis, his government will essentially force a partition.
The White House spokesman also renewed Bush's insistence that the Palestinians take firm steps against terror and dismantle terror groups.