Bush, Blair Call on Both Sides to Act
CRAWFORD, Texas – President Bush reinforced his demand for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank during a joint news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair Saturday.
Bush also called on the Palestinian leadership to order an immediate cease-fire and crack down on militants that engage in terrorist activity.
"I expect Israel to heed my advice," he said. "Israel should halt incursions into Palestinian-controlled areas, and begin to withdraw without delay from those cities it has recently occupied."
As for the Palestinians, Bush said: "I expect for the Palestinians to reject terror. And the Arab world, as Israel steps back, we expect the Arab world to step up and lead, to lead against terror, to get into an immediate cease-fire."
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reacted after the press conference, issuing a statement hours later saying Israel would expedite the operation as much as possible and that the desire to avoid civilian casualties has made the operation last longer.
That statement prompted a 20-minute phone call from Bush that emphasized the president's message from earlier in the day: Bush wants Israeli troops withdrawn immediately. Sharon would not agree to withdraw troops, and would not give a date when the "expedited" operation would end.
Despite Bush's calls for restraint, fighting spread Saturday in the West Bank and there were more deaths in Gaza as well.
On Iraq, Bush said he explained to Blair that the "policy of my government is the removal'' of leader Saddam Hussein and that all options are on the table to achieve that.
Blair agreed that world would be better off without Saddam and that how to accomplish that "is open for discussions."
"I think after the 11th of September, this president showed that he proceeds in a calm and a measured and a sensible but in a firm way.'' Blair said, "Now that is precisely what we need in this situation, too."
Both Bush and Blair stressed that Saddam has continued to develop weapons of mass destruction and had repeatedly broken promises to the world to stop.
"Never forget he knows perfectly well what the international community has demanded of him over these past years and he's never done it," Blair said.
As thunderstorms blew in and out across the prairies of Bush's ranch, the two leaders spoke at the gym in nearby Crawford High School. The two leaders, who ate breakfast together and got a CIA briefing Saturday morning, had more talks scheduled for the afternoon but also time to relax.
The storms ruined plans for Bush and Blair to go fishing or on a hike through the canyons on his 1,600-acre ranch.
Blair was asked if he had been convinced by the president that military action should be taken against Saddam. "This is a matter for international discussion. This is a matter for considering all the options,'' the prime minister said.
At home, Blair faces serious political pressure to resist any U.S. plan to attack Iraq as part of the war on terrorism.
More than 120 members of Parliament, most from Blair's own Labor Party, have signed a House of Commons motion expressing "deep unease'' and urging "restraint'' in any attempt to topple Saddam. Last weekend, thousands of anti-war Britons marched through central London.
Bush said the "change of regime'' he favors is the same policy that was advocated by his predecessor, former President Clinton. Asked if his father, who was president before Clinton, had taken the same position, Bush laughed and said, "I can't remember that far back.''
In fact, the policy was adopted during the Clinton administration. During the Gulf War, the first President Bush pushed back Iraq's invasion of Kuwait but did not topple Saddam.
Secretary of State Colin Powell leaves for the Mideast Sunday night on his quest for a cease-fire that could draw both sides into long-term peacemaking. For now, he has no plans to meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, another sign that the administration is seeking to marginalize the chairman of the Palestinian Authority in favor of other Arab leaders who might be more trustworthy in Bush's eyes.
Bush declined to answer a direct question on whether he considers Arafat a terrorist but made clear his disappointment with Arafat's leadership in the current spiraling violence.
"In order to earn my trust someone must keep his word and Chairman Arafat has not kept his word,'' Bush said.
He called on Arafat to speak out — in Arabic — and to order his people to end terrorist violence against Israelis. "At the very minimum he ought to at least say something,'' Bush said.
In an interview Friday with Britain's ITV network, Bush said he and Blair were discussing "all options'' on Iraq. He chose his words carefully in talking about what course of action other nations might support.
"I think the coalition can be assembled to demand that Iraq let (U.N. weapons) inspectors back in,'' he said, adding: "I'm confident that we can lead a coalition to pressure Saddam Hussein and to deal with Saddam Hussein.''
U.S. military action against Saddam risks the revolt of Arab nations currently supporting the war on terrorism.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.