WASHINGTON, March 14 (UPI) -- President George W. Bush Friday said the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union has created a "roadmap" to peace in the Middle East and that recent political developments may have produced the "moment" to put it into action.
"The United States has developed this plan over the last several months in close cooperation with Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations. Once this road map is delivered, we will expect and welcome contributions from Israel and the Palestinians to this document that will advance true peace," Bush said.
Palestinian Authority officials called Bush's announcement "positive and constructive" --if indeed the roadmap comes to pass -- while Israel spoke more cautiously of "discussions" once the Palestinians take the first step.
In a brief White House Rose Garden announcement Friday, Bush said that "after its recent elections, the nation of Israel has a new government. And the Palestinian Authority has created the new position of prime minister. Israeli and Palestinian leaders and other governments in the region now have a chance to move forward with determination and with good faith."
Though Bush would not take questions about Iraq, he has said before that peace would be enhanced if Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein were removed as a source of support for Palestinian terrorist groups. But Bush's announcement was revealing in how much peace in the Middle East relied on the United Nations.
Bush said: "The Palestinian state must be a reformed and peaceful and democratic state that abandons forever the use of terror. The government of Israel, as the terror threat is removed and security improves, must take concrete steps to support the emergence of a viable and credible Palestinian state, and to work as quickly as possible toward a final status agreement. As progress is made toward peace, settlement activity in the occupied territories must end. And the Arab states must oppose terrorism, support the emergence of a peaceful and democratic Palestine, and state clearly that they will live in peace with Israel."
Just over an hour after Bush's comments in the White House Rose Garden, Britain's prime minister spoke to reporters in London about the roadmap.
"We are right to focus on Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction, but we must put equal focus" on resolving the Middle East crisis, said Tony Blair -- "on Israelis who die in acts of terror and Palestinians who live and die in appalling conditions of suffering."
Unlike Bush, Blair took several questions following his statement. When asked why the announcement came now -- in the midst of a diplomatic crisis over Iraq's disarmament -- he replied, "I think precisely now is when we do have focus. We say to the Arab world we accept the obligation of even-handedness. We say peace between Palestinians and Israelis is as important to us. What the roadmap does is give us the practical steps to get there."
The roadmap calls for reciprocating steps "of target dates and benchmarks," in Blair's words, to address Israeli concerns for security and Palestinian goals for an independent state. Its first phase requires the cessation of both Palestinian terrorism and the building of Israeli settlements in predominantly Palestinian areas, for example.
"In the roadmap are the details -- that's the solution, that's the way forward," Blair said emphatically. "I hope people don't capitalize on it but build on it."
In what was clearly an enticement to Palestinians, Blair added, "Now we have a Palestinian prime minister. When he takes up office the roadmap to peace will be published." Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat bowed to Western pressure earlier this month to implement a key reform -- setting up and filling the office of prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. The Quartet -- the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia -- want Arafat to loosen his grip on power, a concession he has long resisted.
An Israeli official made a similar note in his reaction. "First there must be a Palestinian prime minister with full authority (who must) fight ... and put an end ... to terror, and then Israel will be ready to discuss a road map," the Foreign Ministry's spokesman Ron Prosor told United Press International. Prosor stressed Israeli readiness to discuss "a" road map, clearly careful not to suggest acceptance of "the" roadmap.
In the Palestinian territories, Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council Ahmed Qurea told reporters Friday that Bush's statements were "constructive and positive if they are fully implemented.
He added to United Press International: "These statements would be constructive if it can stop the Israeli aggression and all its types of assassinations, incursions, destruction of houses and arrests and stops settlements activities as well."
In Washington, Bush said that to be a "credible and responsible partner, the new Palestinian prime minister must hold a position of real authority. We expect that such a Palestinian prime minister will be confirmed soon." Although he never mentioned Arafat by name, Bush seemed to imply that the new prime minister would in sense replace Arafat as the negotiating authority and the person to whom the United States would entrust the roadmap.
"Immediately upon confirmation, the road map for peace will be given to the Palestinians and the Israelis," Bush said. "This road map will set forth a sequence of steps toward the goals I set out on June 24th, 2002, goals shared by all the parties.
"Once this road map is delivered, we will expect and welcome contributions from Israel and the Palestinians to this document that will advance true peace. We will urge them to discuss the road map with one another. The time has come to move beyond entrenched positions and to take concrete actions to achieve peace."
(With reporting by Saud Abu Ramadan in Gaza and Joshua Brilliant in Tel Aviv, Israel.)