President Bush has long blamed Yasser Arafat for not controlling the violence against Israel. He cut off all contact with him two years ago — sidelining diplomatic efforts by Secretary of State Colin Powell. Aides say Bush viewed Arafat as the chief obstacle to peace.
"I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders — leaders not compromised by terror," said the president on June 24, 2002.
But Thursday, when a reporter mistakenly thought Arafat had already died, Bush tried to sound statesmanlike, despite his dislike for the Palestinian leader.
"My first reaction is, ‘God bless his soul,’” said Bush.
With the president having no confidence in Arafat, critics say Bush has been in lockstep with Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, siding with him against the Palestinians at every turn.
"They said Arafat was an obstacle," says Middle East expert Shibley Telhani, Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution. "Now we have real change and possibly a leader the U.S. might want to deal with. You have the international community completely focused saying this is the priority issue."
Even the president's closest ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is now pressing him to launch a serious Middle East peace initiative.
"I have long argued that the need to revitalize the Middle East peace process is the single most pressing political challenge in our world today," Blair said Wednesday.
But would Arafat's death create opportunities?
The United States fears there will be a period of protracted violence, as rival groups fight to succeed Arafat.
"His departure from the West Bank and his grave illness really creates a situation where there is a very large leadership vacuum left behind," says Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.
And officials say the administration will be careful not to endorse any successor too quickly.
"The worst thing we could do right now is to identify ourselves with a successor who hasn't been legitimized by the Palestinians," says Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East peace negotiator.
Critics say the president has been so focused on Iraq he has all but ignored the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Now they hope for a fresh start that could also improve America's image in the Arab world.