CRAWFORD, Texas – Pressured by Arab critics and defied by Israel, President Bush voiced exasperation Friday with fresh Israeli offensives but said U.S. support for the Jewish state is unequivocal. "We will not allow Israel to be crushed," he said.
The White House disclosed that Bush and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia were unable, in their five hours of talks on Thursday, to reach agreement on a new eight-point plan that Abdullah presented. Its call for an armed peacekeeping force and other points conflict with U.S. policy, but press secretary Ari Fleischer said the Saudi paper was constructive and talks continue.
The president, speaking to reporters near his Texas ranch, addressed the broader message that Abdullah left with Bush: that U.S. tolerance of Israeli military action in Palestinian areas was threatening U.S. ties to the Arab world.
"I told the crown prince that we've got a unique relationship with Israel, and that one thing that the world can count on is that we will not allow Israel to be crushed," Bush said.
Still, he appealed to Congress to hold off on any official resolution supporting Israel because of Arab sensitivities.
And he bristled at the latest troop movements in defiance of his April 4 demand that Israel halt incursions into Palestinian areas. The president's apparent tolerance of Israeli action in the three weeks since – as forces withdrew from some areas but pressed forward into others – has angered the Arab world.
Abdullah, according to a Saudi spokesman, told Bush in their Thursday talks that he must rein in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
"The Israelis understand my position," Bush said Friday.
"I've been very clear on that. And there has been some progress, but it's now time to quit it altogether. It's time to end this."
Adel al-Jubeir, foreign policy adviser to the crown prince, welcomed Bush's new call for withdrawal. "It speaks to the commitment of the president and the United States to see a peaceful solution and an end of the violence so work can be begun to implement the vision the president and the crown prince share," said al-Jubeir.
Bush was responding to news that Israeli soldiers re-entered the West Bank town of Qalqiliya on Friday and, separately, fired on Palestinian protesters near Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah, where the Palestinian leader has been kept under virtual house arrest.
Ending the Israeli siege at Ramallah was one item on Abdullah's eight-point blueprint, offered as practical ideas for lifting both sides out of a quagmire, al-Jubeir said.
Abdullah's message in presenting the ideas to Bush was, "Yes we're frustrated with the situation, yes, we're upset with the violence, but we're not just complaining, we're offering pragmatic solutions," al-Jubeir said.
The Saudi paper, which might have formed the basis of a joint statement by Bush and Abdullah, also called for immediate political talks between Israel and the Palestinians; an armed multinational peacekeeping force; and an end to Israeli settlements in Palestinian areas.
Bush believes political talks would be most effective with a cease-fire in place; only unarmed monitors should enforce any peace agreement; and the settlement issue should be resolved through negotiation. Israel shares those positions.
In the end, Bush's talks with Abdullah produced no joint statement. "We'll continue to talk to the Saudis and continue to make progress around those eight" points, Fleischer said.
Bush, citing U.S. interests in the Arab world, sounded a note of caution to House conservatives proposing a resolution in support of Israel's fight against terrorism. He said he hoped "that Congress realizes we've got interests in the area, as well, beyond Israel – that we have good relationships with the Saudis and the Jordanians and the Egyptians." He was also dismissive of a congressional drive to give Israel extra aid, saying he's already asked for all the spending that's necessary.
Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the House majority whip, delayed a vote on the resolution.
Bush insisted his first face-to-face meeting with Abdullah created a strong personal bond between the two men and reaffirmed common ground in Mideast peace efforts. And Friday brought yet more attempts to smooth relations with the Arab world.
With Abdullah remaining in Texas for several more days, White House officials left open the possibility of additional high-level discussions.
In what was billed as a personal visit between two old friends, Abdullah and Bush's father, the first President Bush, took a 90-minute train ride together from Houston to College Station, Texas, where Bush treated the crown prince to a private tour of his presidential library.
Later Friday, the former president, who successfully built an Arab coalition against Iraq in the Persian Gulf War, was giving the same VIP tour – plus dinner – to King Mohammed VI of Morocco.
In Washington, the State Department announced that Secretary of State Colin Powell will hold a new round of diplomatic talks next week with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and top officials of the European Union. The leaders will meet in Washington to discuss how to get Mideast peacemaking back on track, said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.