WASHINGTON -- The United States government is not a speed reader, but after 37 years of reading U.N. Resolution 242, on Wednesday the government finally read it accurately. The government saw what is not there -- the missing definite article, ``the.''
Passed after the 1967 Six Day War, 242 mandated the withdrawal of Israel ``from territories occupied in the recent conflict.'' Not from ``the territories.'' Israel insisted on deletion of the ``the'' because it implied, as Arab and other powers acknowledged by their vehement opposition to the deletion -- withdrawal from all territories.
This was strategic ambiguity. On Wednesday, ambiguity was abandoned. In his letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, President Bush said:
``In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of the final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion.''
It is fine to talk about ``new realities,'' such as patterns of settlement, but this new U.S. policy also, and primarily, comes to terms, at long last, with an old reality. It is that 242 also recognized the right of every state in the region to ``secure and recognized boundaries,'' which Israel's 1967 borders were not.
But wait. Palestinian spokesmen, denouncing the new U.S. position, speak not of the 1949 armistice lines but ``the 1967 borders.'' It is not in the interest of the Palestinian Authority to have the world reminded -- being willfully forgetful, it needs much reminding -- that the borders of Israel in 1967 were accidents of the military facts on the ground 18 years before that.
Bush, by emphasizing 1949 rather than 1967, reminds those who are forever saying ``Israel is being provocative'' that for 56 years -- since Israel's founding in May 1948 -- the problem has been that, to Israel's enemies, Israel's being is provocative. Hostility to Israel predated 1967 and would not be cured by a return to 1967 realities.