At a joint press conference held at the White House May 26, President Bush uttered the following statement in the presence of Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas: "Any final-status agreement must be reached between the two parties, and changes to the 1949 Armistice lines must be mutually agreed to. … This is the position of the United States today; it will be the position of the United States at the time of final-status negotiations."
For many who heard these words, the interpretation was clear: The United States opposes Israel's presence in the territories, and even in Jerusalem. This seemed to contradict the statement Bush made last year in an exchange of letters with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on April 14, 2004.
Context Is Everything
At that time, Bush wrote: "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949 … . It is realistic to expect that any final-status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities."
At the time, the interpretation given these words by most observers, including this writer, was that Bush was signaling that if the Palestinians really wanted a state, then they must accept that some Jewish communities over the green line would never be relinquished.
Placed alongside each other, has Bush flip-flopped? Are those who think he's changed wrong?
The answer to both is a big, fat maybe.
In the world of diplomacy, nuance is everything because it is entirely possible to view both statements as entirely consistent.
After all, the president's 2004 statement also made it clear that the Palestinians had to sign off on any accord in which settlements would be brought within Israel's borders.
And even though the 2004 letter also specifically rejected the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees and their descendants to swamp, and ultimately destroy, Israel, it also promised them the same viable Palestinian state that was mentioned last month.
The key to interpretation is, of course, context.
In April 2004, the Palestinians were still led by arch terrorist Yasser Arafat, a man who was persona non grata at the Bush White House. And given the fact that the Palestinian terror war of attrition known as the intifada was still raging, Washington was eager to send the Palestinians the message that the U.S.-Israel alliance was rock-solid.
The feeling is a little different today.
Arafat's now dead. And his replacement - longtime deputy Mahmoud Abbas - has been on a nonstop charm offensive in the Western world.
Even if he was elected in a race that was noticeable for its lack of competition, Abbas has been anointed by Bush as proof of the rise of democracy in the Arab world advocated by the administration in the context of the war in Iraq.
And even though Abbas has done nothing to disarm Palestinian terror groups, he's still getting credit here as a good guy who must be supported.
The dynamics of the recent visit of Sharon to Bush's Texas ranch and Abbas' White House jaunt were also remarkably different.
Sharon, who counts so heavily on American support to justify his own policy of withdrawal from Gaza, came away from the ranch with virtually nothing.
By contrast, Bush hailed Abbas. In a piece of unintentional humor, the normally tongue-tied president even seemed to play the rhetoric coach when he intoned, "Good job, good job," after Abbas ended his White House statement.
Those who see this as a forerunner of doom for Israel believe that the re-elected Bush is now free to do what he likes, without fear of offending Jewish voters.
Thrown Under the Bus?
Worse, they worry that the administration's democracy mantra has caused the president to loose sight of reality on the ground because burnishing Abbas' reputation as a peacemaking democrat bolsters Bush's general foreign-policy aims.
As a result, the worry is that he will throw Israel and Ariel Sharon under the bus in order to prop up his newest Middle Eastern buddy.
As to the truth of the charges, we can dismiss the second-term motive. Bush was elected in 2000 with very few Jewish votes and not that many more four years later. As a result, he owed the pro-Israel community nothing when he arrived in the White House.
Nevertheless, he produced - to the amazement of many who thought him a clone of his father - a very strong pro-Israel record. Even Democrats would have to concede that the green light he gave Ariel Sharon to go on the offensive against Arafat's terrorists enabled Israel to defeat the intifada. And his shunning of Arafat and embrace of Israel's position on the future of the territories and refugees were landmark moments for the U.S.-Israel alliance.
That he did this as a result of his own convictions, rather than as a payback to the Jews, deserves to be acknowledged by even the most rabid Bush-basher.
But at the same time, Bush's biggest backers need to acknowledge that his current embrace of Abbas is more reminiscent of Bill Clinton's delusional pursuit of a Nobel Peace Prize than the cowboy who road roughshod over Arafat and his cheering section at the United Nations.
Abbas may be the best of all possible Palestinian alternatives, but there needs to be more emphasis on accountability from Washington if peace is to have a chance. By embracing Abbas, Bush seems to be accepting the European model that the Palestinians are the exception to the prime directive of the war on terror: You are with us or you are against us. Abbas, who wants to appear the democrat in Washington but play nice with the terrorists in Gaza, doesn't fit into that formulation as a U.S. ally.
Bush's record has earned him some slack with friends of Israel, but not this much.
Yet the real test for Abbas - and Bush - is yet to come.
Some time after Israel finishes its unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, many intelligence analysts insist that the intifada will break out anew as Abbas pushes for more Israeli concessions on the West Bank and in Jerusalem.
If Bush holds Abbas accountable for a spike in terror, then fears about American appeasement were misplaced. But if Bush reacts by making more excuses for the Palestinians and tries to restrain Israeli measures of self-defense, we will understand that the president has truly reversed course.
Until then, all we can do is watch, wait and warn of the dangers that lie ahead. Jonathan S. Tobin can be reached via e-mail at [email protected] .