Washington Secretary of State Colin Powell said Wednesday the Bush administration was considering establishment of an interim Palestinian state and left open the possibility Yasser Arafat would head it.
"It isn't all that new and revolutionary a suggestion," Powell told reporters as he flew to a foreign ministers meeting in Canada. "It's been a pretty consistent element in all of the discussions about how to move forward in the Middle East."
In an interview Monday with an Arabic-language newspaper, Powell said a provisional state would give Palestinians "something they can put their hopes in, their dreams in, something the international community can invest in with some confidence."
"I think almost everybody has come to the agreement there is a need for provisional or interim steps," Powell said.
On Wednesday, en route to British Columbia, Powell eased back, saying an interim state was one of many ideas long under consideration.
Upon his arrival in Canada, Powell said: "What I have been doing is trying to help the press and the public understand the options that are out there, and help the press and the public understand the advice that the president has been receiving."
President Bush is to meet today at the White House with Prince Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia. An announcement by Bush on his strategy for carrying out his promise to the Palestinians of a state of their own could come as early as next week.
A senior administration official said Bush was seriously considering provisional statehood but had not reached a final decision.
Other administration officials played down the policy significance of Powell's remarks and also noted he was speaking to a newspaper with Arab readers.
Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian negotiator, responded coolly to Powell's suggestion of a provisional or interim state. "I don't know what he means by that," Erekat said. "The main thing here is to end the Israeli occupation and to have Israel withdraw" to its old borders, he said.
Nasser al-Kidwa, the Palestinians' observer at the United Nations, said there must be a "clear definition of the final outcome" for any interim measure to work. In fact, he said, "it might take us to a worse situation."
Without saying which countries raised the idea of an interim state, Powell said some thought it would create "a political horizon" that could make it easier for Palestinians to carry out changes needed to improve security and make Palestinian leaders more accountable.
Other countries, he said, felt an interim arrangement could put Palestinians in limbo and "you may never get to the end state."
"There are strong views on both sides of this issue," Powell said.