With the White House largely focused on Iraq, President Bush's public return to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict surprised some observers both in the United States and abroad.
But the President's reason for taking up the issue in a widely scrutinized speech last week has much to do with Iraq.
The Bush administration has a vision for how regime change in Iraq can lead to a new era of expanding democracy and personal freedoms in the Middle East. But as it has worked to build international support for war, Mr. Bush and his staff have been stung by criticism that the US has dropped the ball on Middle East peace.
More critically, even some of Washington's closest allies worry that the US has sided too closely with Israel, adopting the Israeli view that all Palestinian violence is terrorism. In post-9/11 Washington, there is less tolerance for violence anywhere that was once called "freedom fighting."
Those perceptions have left international public opinion deeply skeptical of a war the US says would be fought in part with the goal of spreading freedom throughout the Middle East.
In this context the president's speech last week on Mideast peace and democratic prospects may have allayed some fears, but won't have silenced the guessing about US intentions.
That's because the Bush administration's approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be seen two ways: as the strongest rhetorical support for an independent Palestine expressed by any presidency, or it can be interpreted as the closest-ever alignment of US policy with Israel.
"There's a certain paradox in the president's position," says Stephen Zunes, a Middle East expert at the University of San Francisco. "On one hand he's more explicit about a Palestinian state and actually using the name 'Palestine' than any president, but on the other hand he's embraced essentially unconditional support for [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon."
Europeans and Arabs hope there's something genuine in the former; Ariel Sharon is basking in the latter - and the White House is counting on both positions making their mark with each constituency until the Iraqi conflict is settled.
In his speech, Bush appeared to lay his personal integrity on the line in recommitting the US to the "two states, side-by-side" solution. But he linked progress in the region to removing Saddam Hussein from the neighborhood.
Reiterating the "two-state" language is widely viewed as a response to intense pressures the president has come under both at home and abroad. Secretary of State Colin Powell, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and most recently Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, have implored the president to make public the connection he sees between resolving the Iraq crisis and achieving a Middle East peace that includes an independent Palestine.
"Bush is doing damage control, he's addressing the anxieties of the Europeans and the friendly Arabs" about his administration's plans for the region, says Joseph Montville, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
But the president also faces other pressures from within his administration. Bush's progressively stronger endorsements of Israel's tough treatment of all Palestinian violence as terrorism reflects a growing White House alignment with Mr. Sharon and his Likud Party.
That connection was bolstered by the naming in December of Elliott Abrams as senior director for Near East and North African Affairs at the National Security
Council. And it continued with
Mr. Abrams's replacement of staffers with what one observer calls "real Likudniks."
A central sticking point for all sides is the issue of Israeli settlements in occupied territories. On this point, Bush seems to be sending mixed signals.
In his speech, the president spoke of a "viable" Palestinian state - code for an entity not chopped up into pockets within a dominant Israeli state. A viable state is part of what a "quartet" of powers - the US, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia - envisage in a "road map" for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
That usage buoys Palestine's supporters, as does the president's announcement of his "personal commitment" to husbanding the creation of a Palestinian state - a commitment that is seen by some as notification to Mr. Sharon that the president's position is not negotiable.
But at the same time, others fear even further slippage in American opposition to Israeli settlements, which have grown in such a way - and despite UN resolutions declaring most of them illegal - as to divide a future Palestine into separate enclaves.
In his speech Bush said, "As progress is made towards peace, settlement activity in the occupied territories must end." That wording suggests a shift from US policy that has opposed present settlement activity. Some critics say that Bush is echoing Ariel Sharon's position that the settlement issue can only be taken up after substantial new concessions from the Palestinians.
But even some Arabs are unwilling to see Bush and Sharon as one. "I don't know if we should give too much importance" to Bush tying a halt on settlements to progress by Palestinians, says Hussein Hassouna, the Arab League's ambassador in Washington. "There is a sequence established in the road map, so let's see if [Bush] continues in his commitment to it."
At the same time, some analysts say other recent factors suggest the US is keeping some distance from Israel. Mr. Montville says Bush may be sending Sharon a message through dollar signs: Israel did not get $200 million in supplemental aid it has sought, and the White House has balked at Israel's request for $4 billion in defense assistance, signaling it may only give $1 billion.
The settlements and road map are crucial questions, Montville says, but the key thing to watch will be how the Bush administration handles the pressure for financial aid to Israel.