WASHINGTON – President Bush is seeing signs of progress from the 10-day Middle East mission of Secretary of State Colin Powell and is weighing the possibility of convening a conference to achieve peace in the region.
Powell, who arrived at Andrews Air Force Base a little after 2 a.m. Thursday, was due at the White House barely eight hours later for a meeting with Bush and other members of the president's national security team to report on his trip.
Despite intense efforts, Powell was unable to get the Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire he had sought.
Bush wants to be sure the idea of a Middle East peace conference makes sense before embracing it, a senior administration official said.
Also on Thursday's agenda was a discussion of a possible return visit by Powell to the Middle East.
Before taking off from the region Wednesday, Powell pointed to what he called signs of progress, especially a promise by Israel to accelerate military withdrawal from the West Bank.
Bush, in a speech at the Virginia Military Institute, agreed Powell had made progress and echoed Powell's demand for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to do more to stop violence.
``The Palestinian Authority must act — must act — on its words of condemnation of terror,'' Bush said.
CIA Director George Tenet probably will go to the region next week, but a final decision will be made after Powell's White House meeting, an official said.
The United States hopes to ``restart the clock'' to conditions that were in place before the Passover bombing that killed 28 people in Netanya on March 27. It was after that suicide bombing that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sent troops and tanks into Palestinian-controlled cities, and the worst fighting of the 1 1/2 -year-old Palestinian uprising has followed.
In the pre-March 27 plan, Israel would get a resumption of Tenet-led security talks, and the Palestinians would receive assurances that the political process is not far behind, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Another top official said the region will get a steady stream of visits from U.S. officials prodding the parties toward political and security negotiations.
Bush is trying to find a way to give Israel hope for an end to terror while giving Palestinians, in return, a reason to believe they will get their own state and land gains, the official said.
After Bush returned to the White House on Wednesday from his visit to Virginia, he met with Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who urged Bush to continue Middle East peacemaking.
``We believe that without the help of the United States, the region is going to face a lot of problems,'' Hariri said.
Wednesday night, Vice President Dick Cheney made an appearance at an Israeli Embassy celebration of the 54th anniversary of Israeli independence.
Standing before hundreds assembled under tents, Cheney said, alluding to Powell's mission, ``We believe we are making progress.'' Numerous members of Congress attended.
Cheney recalled 11 years ago, when he was secretary of defense during the Persian Gulf War, and being comforted by the knowledge that Iraq did not have nuclear weapons to use against the U.S.-led coalition.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein might have had such weapons had Israel not knocked out an Iraqi nuclear facility with an airstrike in 1981, Cheney said.