WASHINGTON, Oct. 2 (UPI) -- President Bush on Tuesday said the possibility of a Palestinian state was always part of his administration's effort to negotiate a peace agreement in the Middle East, but that status of Israel would have to be considered.
"The idea of a Palestinian state has always been a part of a vision, so long as the right of Israel to exist is respected,"' Bush said after a breakfast meeting with congressional leaders.
Bush was responding to media reports in the New York Times and the Washington Post that his administration was preparing a peace initiative that would have endorsed a Palestinian state. However, those plans were derailed by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
The Post reported that Bush also would have met with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat during the U.N. General Assembly scheduled to take place in late September.
The White House maintained throughout the day that a Palestinian state has always been the possible end product of Mideast peace negotiations, but emphasized that a reduction in violence within the region was first on the administration's agenda.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumseld was expected to leave for the Middle East Tuesday at the president's direction. He was expected to return this weekend, a senior defense department official said. No agenda for the secretary's trip was set and it was unclear with nations he will be visiting.
Rumsfeld is, however, expected to travel into the region aboard a C-17 military transport rather than a conventional aircraft because of continued security threats in the areas. C-17 military transports have the ability to ward off attack.
In his brief session with reporters, Bush did not confirm the media reports, but said his administration was committed to Israeli-Palestinian agreements reached under the Mitchell committee recommendations.
"What I'm telling you is that we are fully committed to the Mitchell process," he said. "And we are fully committed to working with both sides to bring the level of terror down to an acceptable level for both. And I fully understand that progress is made in centimeters in the Middle East. And we believe we're making some progress."
The Times reported that Arab states told U.S. officials that American engagement in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a condition for their support of Bush's anti-terrorism campaign. After the attacks, Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was to make the announcement in a speech, signaled to friendly Arab countries that the administration would assume a more visible role in the Middle East, the Times reported.
U.S. involvement in the conflict initially took on a lower-profile role than the previous administration, but in the past six months has escalated to Bush commissioning a fact-finding committee to ascertain how a peace agreement might be forged.