As Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes traveled through the Middle East last week seeking to burnish the U.S. image, one of her key talking points was that President Bush is the first president to call for a Palestinian state.
"The person I work for, President Bush, is the first president in the history of America to say we believe the Palestinians should have a state, living side by side in peace with Israel," Hughes told al-Jazeera satellite television. She repeated the statement two more times in the five-minute interview.
Hughes, a former White House official, told reporters traveling with her that she remembered intense administration debates at the time "about what a significant step this would be for United States policy" if he supported a Palestinian state.
But, oddly, when Bush announced in 2001 that he supported a Palestinian state, administration officials rushed to say that he was simply following a policy articulated by his predecessor, Bill Clinton. In fact, news reports at the time said Bush was merely the first Republican president to support an independent state for the Palestinians.
Bush first publicly called for a Palestinian state in October 2001, during a meeting with congressional leaders, saying that "the idea of a Palestinian state has always been part of a vision, so long as the right to Israel to exist is respected."
Then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell quickly told reporters there was "nothing new" about Bush's remarks.
"As the president said this morning, there has always been a vision in our thinking, as well as in previous administrations' thinking, that there would be a Palestinian state that would exist at the same time that the security of the state of Israel was also recognized, guaranteed and accepted by all parties," Powell said. "That vision is alive and well, and we hope that it will come about as a result of negotiations between the two sides. So, in that regard, there is nothing new."
After the president spoke, then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer also played down the notion that Bush was breaking new ground. "It's always been contemplated for the Middle East that a Palestinian state is part of that vision," he told reporters.
The president formally reiterated the idea in a speech before the U.N. General Assembly a month later, on Nov. 10, 2001, saying, "We are working toward the day when two states -- Israel and Palestine -- live peacefully together within secure and recognized borders." But Bush's statement attracted little notice in the U.S. news media at the time.
That is because Clinton already laid the groundwork in the last months of his presidency by trying to achieve a peace deal that would have resulted in a Palestinian state. In a speech on Jan. 7, 2001, two weeks before he left office, Clinton said he believed the conflict could not be resolved without creating "a sovereign, viable Palestinian state."
Clinton outlined the possible concessions each side could make, known today as the "Clinton parameters." For Palestinians, he said, a peace deal would mean "an independent and sovereign state with al Quds [East Jerusalem] as its capital, recognized by all. And for America, it means that we could have new flags flying over new embassies in both these capitals."
Challenged by reporters to explain the difference between the comments by Bush and Clinton, Hughes said: "President George W. Bush is the first president to make it a matter of United States policy that we support two states living side by side in peace and freedom" -- an important nuance that was left out of her repeated statements on her Middle East tour.
Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland, agrees that Bush formally made creating a Palestinian state the goal of U.S. policy, largely to appeal to the Muslim world at a time when the United States had attacked Afghanistan.
The Clinton administration had been careful to say it would not prejudge "final status" issues, which included the establishment of a state. But the concept was not so radical by the time Bush assumed the presidency.
"Everyone assumed [the Clinton peace negotiations] would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state," Telhami said. "The U.S., in effect, was working on what would be a Palestinian state, but the articulated policy was less than a Palestinian state."