WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush held fast Monday to his support of a Palestinian state, possibly foreshadowing a sharp dispute with Israel and its dominant Likud party.
The hard-line coalition voted Sunday in favor of a resolution never to allow the creation of a Palestinian state, defying Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who had said he could support statehood under certain limited conditions.
"The president continues to believe that the best route to peace is through the creation of the state of Palestine and side-by-side security with Israel," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in response to Likud's decision.
While Bush did not back off, his chances of spurring peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority may have dimmed. And getting cooperation from Yasser Arafat on security could now be more difficult.
Bush had held out the prospect of statehood as incentive to Arafat and the Authority to lower tensions with Israel and harness suicide bombers. He also has promised a worldwide campaign to generate assistance to the Palestinian people.
So ingrained had administration acceptance of Palestinian statehood become that Bush's assistant for national security, Condoleezza Rice, and Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman, made almost matter-of-fact references to "Palestine" in speeches last week to the American Jewish Committee.
Bush was the first U.S. president to explicitly endorse establishment of a Palestinian state on land the Arabs lost in their war with Israel in 1967.
Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, had proposed a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians that envisioned statehood. Last week, Clinton explicitly backed statehood.
Sharon has said a Palestinian state is inevitable. At a meeting with Bush earlier this year at the White House, he said there could be a state if other conditions were met.
Fleischer affirmed Bush's continuing support for a Palestinian state in a meeting with reporters at the White House, while insisting he did not "comment in international domestic politics."
"Every nation has its share of internal domestic politics," Fleischer said.
The Arab world was upset by the Likud decision. The vote, senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told The Associated Press, "just shows that the war being waged by Israel against the Palestinians is not a war against what they call terror. It's really their war to maintain the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza."
Erekat said the vote was "a real slap in the face" for Bush. Arafat seeks a state on all of the West Bank, Gaza and part of Jerusalem, where he intends to set up his capital. He also seeks the right to relocate millions of Palestinians in what would remain of Israel on the grounds they are descendants of Palestinians forced to flee during the establishment of Israel in 1947-48.