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.
The territories occupied by Israel since 1967 have been lawfully held because a nation that occupies territories in the process of repelling aggression launched from them can hold them until the disposition of the lands is settled by negotiations between the relevant parties. Palestinians and their supporters have tried to erase this fact by semantic infiltration of the world's political vocabulary, getting the territories routinely referred to as ``Palestinian lands.'' Actually, in law the territories are unallocated portions of the 1922 Palestine Mandate, the final disposition of which is still to be settled by negotiations.
And there, for 56 years, has been the rub -- the absence of a suitable interlocutor for Israel. Meaning a negotiating partner not committed to the destruction of the ``Zionist entity,'' or completion of the project interrupted but not abandoned when the last Nazi death camps were liberated 59 Aprils ago.
It is instructive -- and wonderful -- how few and optional have been references to Yasser Arafat in discussions of Wednesday's developments. In a life of terror, his only service to peace was his demonstration, at Camp David in July 2000 with President Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, that the most that Israel could ever offer in the way of concessions is less than the current Palestinian leadership will accept.
Which is why Wednesday's policy flowed ineluctably from Bush's June 24, 2002, pronouncement that the first prerequisite for progress is for the Palestinian people to produce ``regime change'': ``I call upon the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror.'' That prerequisite being unattainable, Sharon has chosen unilateral disengagement -- the fence -- and a long wait for the time when, in Bush's words, ``the Palestinian people have new leaders, new institutions and new security arrangements.''
In 1998 the then-governor of Texas, preparing to run for president, visited Israel and was given a helicopter tour of the nation's vulnerabilities. Bush saw the place where Israel, from 1949 until 1967, had been nine miles wide. Back home, Bush said: Why, in Texas we have driveways longer than that. Bush's host in the helicopter was Sharon.
Sharon, who is 76, is a reminder of why it is reasonable to prefer young doctors but old politicians. Young doctors because recently in medical school they learned the latest panaceas. Old politicians because, having lived long enough to not hope for miracle cures to political problems, they do what they can, on their own.