WASHINGTON – When President George W. Bush began his first energized pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord just over five months ago, confidence was his constant companion. "I'm optimistic," he said over and over about the prospects for ending one of the world's longest-running disputes within little more than a year.
As the president prepares to leave Tuesday for a Mideast trip, his second in four months, he is trading that unfailingly upbeat tone for something a bit more reserved. He was due to arrive in Israel early Wednesday.
It is a nod to Mideast realities.
Old barriers to peace such as distrust, violence and little movement on the most difficult issues concerning borders, Palestinian refugees and how to resolve both sides' claim to Jerusalem have run up against new ones, mainly in the form of leaders possibly too weak among their own people to cut deals.
"I certainly think there's a coming to grips with reality," said Nathan Brown, a Mideast expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and director of George Washington University's Institute for Middle East Studies.
In November, when Bush convened nearly 50 countries in Annapolis, Maryland, for a Mideast peace conference that launched the first formal negotiations in years between Israelis and Palestinians, he repeatedly said a deal was doable by the time he leaves office next January.
"I wouldn't be standing here if I didn't believe that peace was possible," he said at a Rose Garden send-off for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Bush was just as cheerful in January before, during and after a Mideast trip. "There's a good chance for peace," he said in Israel, his first visit there as president. "When I say I'm optimistic we can get a deal done, I mean what I'm saying," Bush said in Egypt.
He kept this stance into March, despite no visible progress in the Israeli-Palestinian talks that include bimonthly meetings between Olmert and Abbas. Bush declared that the 10 months left on his self-imposed peace clock was "plenty of time." "I'm still as optimistic as I was after Annapolis," Bush said after meeting at the White House with Jordan's King Abdullah II.
The approach is classic Bush, for whom a favorite story is how the choice of an Oval Office rug with a sunburst pattern says "optimistic person comes to work" to visitors. Truth be told, it is not so uncommon for most politicians and diplomats, said Jon Alterman, head of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"The president is optimistic because he thinks his job is to be optimistic," he said.
But Bush was less ebullient by the time Abbas visited the White House last month to plead for stepped-up U.S. involvement in the negotiations, particularly to ride herd on Israel to halt settlement activity in Palestinian areas. "I'm confident we can achieve the definition of a state," he told Abbas, somewhat flatly.
Perhaps even more significantly, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told an American Jewish audience a few days later that "we have a chance to reach the basic contours of a settlement by the end of the year."
These subtle shifts in language may not seem like much.
But in the painstaking, tea-leaves world of Mideast diplomacy, Bush describing the goal as the "definition of a state" and Rice's talk of merely "a chance" for "the basic contours of a settlement" are read by experts and those in the region as a scaling back of initial hopes for a full-blown treaty. Though the White House was vague from the beginning about what it was seeking from the talks, the distinct impression was left that the envisioned final product was an end to the conflict and the definition of a Palestinian state.
Now, Palestinians are becoming increasingly suspicious that the Israelis are looking to achieve something by the end of the year that is much less than a full treaty, and that they are supported in this by Washington.
"We don't want a declaration of principle because we had one," complained an upset Abbas after the meeting with Bush in Washington.
The Carnegie Endowment's Brown said this sort of disappointment is a price of Bush's high-flying original rhetoric. Though it was widely seen as overblown at the time, it still created expectations — and reduced his credibility.
"Anything less than some kind of agreement is going to be seen as failure," Brown said.
Bush's Mideast peace push has seen other instances where initial intentions seemed to be rolled back.
The November conference originally was meant to produce the outline of a future peace deal. But while the Palestinians wanted a detailed statement that noted core issues and timelines, the Israelis preferred something more vague. The agenda was curtailed to just restarting negotiations and stating the goal of reaching a deal before Bush left office.
Further, the notion of a three-way meeting between Bush, Olmert and Abbas — the kind of intensive mediation engaged in by previous presidents — has been raised and then quashed before both of the president's Mideast trips.
And this trip, announced when Bush was in the region the last time and expected to be about furthering negotiations, now seems designed as much as a ceremonial journey. Bush is in Israel primarily to participate in festivities surrounding the 60th anniversary of the Jewish state. And his stop in Saudi Arabia later in the week is billed as a celebration of 75 years of formal U.S.-Saudi relations.
"You look at the itinerary and this does not look like a major diplomatic trip," Brown said.
Progress has been so invisible from the talks, that the Bush administration has told both sides they need to give some visible sign soon that things are moving forward.
But both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are weak, complicating Bush's task — and his confidence.
Olmert is under investigation for allegations that he illicitly collected campaign cash, and has said he will resign if indicted. Abbas is constrained himself, by the political divide between Palestinians in the West Bank where Abbas' Fatah movement is in control and in Gaza, which is governed by the Hamas militant group.