The new US position was announced almost casually by President Bush on 2 October during a press briefing in Washington after a meeting with congressional leaders. ‘The idea of a Palestinian state has always been part of a vision,’ he said in response to questions about press reports indicating that the US had been preparing a major Middle East peace initiative before the 11 September suicide air attacks.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat issued a statement expressing ‘gratitude and appreciation’. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah said: ‘This departure would have a positive connotation for the security and stability of the Middle East.’ Similar statements were issued by other Arab leaders and by Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa.

However, some Arab commentators cautioned that the US policy shift could be seen as more of a public relations exercise aimed at winning over Arabs and Muslims who have reservations about military action being taken against Afghanistan.

Palestinian Planning & International Co-operation Minister Nabil Shaath said on 3 October that the US had spoken with Saudi, Jordanian and Egyptian leaders about the new peace plan, and that Bush or Secretary of State Colin Powell had been scheduled to announce it in a 24 September address to the UN General Assembly. The plan is said to include a Palestinian state, Palestinian sovereignty over Arab neighbourhoods of Jerusalem, Israeli sovereignty over Jewish districts in the city and fresh proposals on the Palestinian refugee issue.

US officials have noted that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has made several references to the idea of a Palestinian state in recent weeks. These included a 24 September statement in which he said: ‘Israel wants to give the Palestinians what no one else has given them, the possibility of establishing a state.’

The advances on the diplomatic front have had little impact on the situation on the ground. Heavy clashes have continued in the West Bank and Gaza, tearing apart the ceasefire agreed between Arafat and Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Shimon Peres on 26 September.