President Bush, struggling to build a coalition for military action against Iraq, yielded to pressure from key foreign allies Friday and declared he would take new steps to settle the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
Speaking in the White House Rose Garden, Bush said he would deliver to Palestinian and Israeli leaders a long-awaited road map once the Palestinians have confirmed the appointment of a prime minister with "real authority," expected in about a week.
The central factor in Bush's decision to announce the plan, officials said, was an entreaty from British Prime Minister Tony Blair to demonstrate that the Americans cared about more issues in the Middle East than the forced disarmament of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Bush's abrupt statement on the eve of an increasingly likely war was welcomed as long overdue by diplomats in the region and beyond. But they questioned the timing and warned that Bush must invest significant political capital if the effort is to increase his credibility and yield results.
One senior diplomat involved in the Israeli-Palestinian project cited "a certain degree of cynicism" in the announcement of the road map after months when Bush refused to play a more active role. Another diplomat described the move as "minimal" and said he would watch for stronger action.
U.S. officials said the president preferred to wait until the confrontation with Iraq was over, but he wanted to help Blair, who is facing significant political opposition for his pro-war position. Bush seized on the recent naming of the first Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, as the motivation to move forward.
Speaking shortly after Bush made his remarks, Blair said he hoped the formal release of the document would assuage people who have demanded that the United States and Britain demonstrate they are "prepared to care and work as much for a resolution of the Palestinian issue."
"We are right to focus on Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction," Blair said in London, "but we must put equal focus on the plight of the people whose lives are being devastated by a lack of progress in the Middle East peace process: Israeli civilians who die in acts of terrorism and Palestinians living and dying in appalling conditions of suffering."
Bush called last year for an independent Palestinian state to be created alongside Israel by 2005 and dispatched diplomats to develop a plan with counterparts from Russia, the United Nations and the European Union -- collectively called the Quartet.
The idea was to present the Israelis and Palestinians with parallel requirements that would end in a final deal three years later. The issues in the first of three phases, for example, stretch from security cooperation and Palestinian political reform to the withdrawal of Israeli troops to pre-Sept. 2000 positions and a freeze on Israeli settlements.
But once the seven-page document was completed, Bush repeatedly rejected requests by European and Middle Eastern allies and the United Nations to press ahead.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon persuaded the president that release of the document before Israeli elections in January would be unwise. Once the elections came and went, the administration said it would await the creation of an Israeli government. When the new cabinet took office, U.S. authorities signaled their intention to wait further.
Political leaders throughout Europe and the Middle East have been lobbying Bush to do more to resolve the bitter and bloody fight between the Israelis and Palestinians. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who has unsuccessfully sought a stronger effort, testified to a congressional committee Thursday that the lack of progress has hindered the administration's bid for U.N. Security Council support against Iraq.
Blair and his aides have told any administration official who would listen in recent weeks that Bush and Blair -- the principal public faces of the push to invade Iraq -- needed to demonstrate greater balance toward the Middle East if they expected to persuade others. Blair himself made repeated appeals to Bush, sources said.
"The message was coming from every channel," said one official.
Bush took heart from the designation of the pragmatic Abbas as prime minister by Yasser Arafat, whom Sharon and Bush have rejected as a peace partner. The parliament granted Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazin, day-to-day responsibility, but Arafat retains control over the security services and the peace process.
The formal release of the road map itself is a modest step, the administration concedes. Indeed, the Israelis and Palestinians have had copies of the document for months. One official described the formal step, however, as a way to "launch a process of engagement that, incremental as it might be, offers some hope."
Bush worried some observers by saying in his Rose Garden statement that, following the document's release, he would "welcome contributions from Israel and the Palestinians to this document." A number of analysts interpreted the comment to mean the details are negotiable, although a U.S. official said "the place where we want to hear from the parties is on implementation."
While Sharon has said he accepts the road map in principle, the Israeli government wants dozens of changes, beginning with an insistence that the Palestinians must be the first to take significant actions.
Bush made his first substantive remarks on the crisis in months in a Feb. 26 speech, when he said the Palestinians must reduce terror before Israel will be expected to take "concrete steps to support the emergence of a viable and credible Palestinian state." Only "as progress is made toward peace," he said, must the Israelis end "settlement activity" in the occupied territories.
A senior European diplomat argued Friday that one of the road map's chief strengths is the intention to muster international solidarity to command concessions.
"When we negotiated it," the diplomat said, "the idea was to impose the road map, not to put it on the table and say to our Palestinian and Israeli friends, 'Do what you want with it.' Because we know there are a hundred amendments coming from the Israeli side. If you don't impose it on both sides, it's a lose-lose situation.
"The Israelis will start changing the whole text, word by word, the Palestinians will do the same, and we'll have to go back to the next Quartet meeting and start all over again."