Once again, a private conversation between President Bush and Palestinian leaders two years ago has come back to bedevil the White House.
Despite the dubious nature of Bush's reported words -- which the White House insists have been mischaracterized -- the latest account asserting that Bush once claimed a divine mandate to wage war in Afghanistan and Iraq has spawned headlines around the globe, in newspapers and over the Internet. Commentators have been especially ruthless in Europe, where Bush's born-again Christianity is viewed with suspicion.
The story has its roots in a meeting in June 2003, when Bush attended back-to-back summits in Egypt and Jordan to launch a peace plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The BBC will broadcast a documentary this week in which a senior Palestinian official alleges that Bush privately suggested that he invaded Afghanistan and Iraq on the orders of God.
" 'God would tell me, 'George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan,' " then-Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath recounted as Bush saying in June 2003. " 'And I did, and then God would tell me, 'George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq' . . . And I did.' "
Bush allegedly went on to say that God had now told him to "go get the Palestinians their state."
White House press secretary Scott McClellan strongly denied that Bush said those words, dismissing that interpretation as absurd. Shaath on Friday told the BBC's Arabic Service that he did not take Bush's comments literally but thought they merely reflected Bush's strong religious faith.
This is not the first time this conversation has spawned controversy. Shortly after the summits took place, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz obtained the minutes of a Palestinian meeting in which then-Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas recounted the session with Bush. Haaretz provided a translation of Bush's words into English that was remarkably similar to the BBC account.
An Arabic speaker at The Washington Post, however, translated the words differently after receiving the original Arabic from Haaretz. Instead of "God told me," The Post's translation had Bush saying he was inspired by God.
"God inspired me to hit al Qaeda, and so I hit it," Bush said, according to The Post account. "And I had the inspiration to hit Saddam [Hussein], and so I hit him. Now I am determined to solve the Middle East problem if you help. Otherwise the elections will come, and I will be wrapped up with them."
Bush frequently speaks of his faith and trust in God. The translation from Bush's words in English into Arabic for the Palestinians, and then back to English again appears to have distorted the tenor of his words.
In fact, Abbas, now president of the Palestinian Authority, gave the BBC a different version of Bush's words. Abbas recalled that Bush said: " 'I have a moral and religious obligation. So I will get you a Palestinian state.' "
According to the minutes, one of Bush's main points appeared to be that he had a limited time frame to devote his political capital to the issue before the 2004 presidential campaigns went into full swing.
Indeed, only a few months later, the peace plan stalled when Abbas quit as prime minister. The administration devoted little time to the issue until this year -- after Bush was reelected.