Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has assured President Bush that his troops will withdraw from two Palestinian areas in the West Bank within a week. Mr. Bush, who had been calling for a total withdrawal, welcomed the news of a partial pullout.
It's far short of what the president originally asked for, but Mr. Bush says the withdrawal from Jenin and Nablus is a positive development because it shows the pullouts are continuing.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer says the president told the prime minister that this move by the Israelis will increase the prospects for peace in the region. He says President Bush placed the call after Prime Minister Sharon told CNN he would begin withdrawals from all parts of the West Bank except Ramallah and Bethlehem.
Ramallah is Yasser Arafat's headquarters. Bethlehem is the site of a standoff at the Church of the Nativity between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen.
Mr. Fleischer told reporters that the situation in Bethlehem was discussed by the president and the prime minister during their 15 minute telephone conversation. He said Secretary of State Colin Powell is trying to find a solution and indicated it is an urgent priority.
The White House spokesman also said the president urged Prime Minister Sharon to improve humanitarian conditions in West Bank areas that have been overrun by Israeli troops. He said events of the last two weeks have provided further reason for concern, but did not elaborate.
In recent days, President Bush has left the talking about the Middle East to others in his administration, perhaps because he does not want to divert attention from the Powell mission. His only comments Monday came during an appearance at a Republican party event in the state of Iowa.
"I am very proud of the hard work and the diligent effort of Secretary of State Colin Powell working to lay the foundations for peace in the Middle East," he said.
Colin Powell will meet again on Tuesday with Ariel Sharon and on Wednesday with Yasser Arafat. High on the agenda will be prospects for a ministerial-level conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In a recent interview, President Bush expressed doubts about the need for a Middle East summit. But Mr. Fleischer said a ministerial conference is something different, adding the president remains open to a number of ideas.