US presidential visits to Israel have not, over the years, been rare occurrences. George Bush is unusual in leaving it until the end of his seventh year in office to meet an Israeli prime minister on his home ground. What is far more rare – Bill Clinton set the precedent nine years ago – is a meeting between a US president and a Palestinian leader on Palestinian territory, in this case Ramallah in the still occupied West Bank. The sight of George Bush, chatting apparently amiably to President Mahmoud Abbas, after 90 minutes or so of formal talks, still has considerable capacity to surprise.
The same goes for the tenor and substance of Mr Bush's remarks in Jerusalem yesterday. Not only did he call on Israel to withdraw from Arab land captured in 1967 – apparently the first time he has said this publicly – but he broached the possibility of compensation payments to Palestinians as part of a solution to the refugee issue. We would hesitate to read too much into this. But could it be that we have here a more realistic and practical approach to the Middle East conundrum than we have yet seen from this US administration?
At very least there seems to be a change of approach. Mr Bush's decision to include the West Bank, along with Israel, in his extensive regional tour was a logical sequel to the Annapolis conference in November. With only a year left in the White House, Mr Bush appears to have looked around for a more positive foreign policy legacy than international resentment and failed wars and alighted – like so many of his predecessors – on the Middle East.
And the prospects for movement may not be as hopeless as they have sometimes seemed. There was a better turn-out at Annapolis than the US organisers had feared, even if the amount of time actually spent conferring was minimal. By going to the Middle East, Mr Bush is honouring his promise to remain personally involved – as, of course, he must, if he is to claim the credit for any success.
So far as the Palestinians are concerned, Mr Bush has shown a growing awareness that a lasting settlement will have to be acceptable not just to their leaders, but to the people. This shift may reflect in part the persuasive efforts of Tony Blair and European leaders. It may also reflect the greater interest now taken in the Palestinian question by Mr Bush's trusted confidante and Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.
Nor should the significance of Yasser Arafat's passing be underestimated. After the failure of Mr Clinton's mediation efforts at Camp David in 2000, and the beginning of the second Palestinian intifada, it was nigh impossible for an Israeli leader to re-engage with the Palestinians, let alone for a US President. The election of Mahmoud Abbas signified a break with the past; the growing personal rapport between him and the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, has improved the atmosphere. Without either of these developments, it is doubtful that Mr Bush's West Bank visit could have taken place.
Even so, it is hard to share Mr Bush's confidence that a peace agreement enshrining the two-state solution can be signed before he leaves office. Although Mr Olmert looks stronger now than at any time since the misguided Lebanon incursion two years ago, leaders throughout the region are weak – too weak, probably, to be able to make a deal stick. More fatally, the Palestinians are divided, with Gaza controlled by Hamas and treated as out of bounds. A Middle East agreement that included only the Palestinians of the West Bank would store up trouble for the future. An agreement must be comprehensive; anything less would not be worthy of the name.