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Stephen J. Hadley, White House national security adviser for Mr. Bush, rebuffed the Israeli ambassador both times in part because he did not seek to hem in the next administration.

“There is a document listing all the written agreements,” a former senior Bush administration official said. “It covers Bush but also prior written agreements. Sallai wanted it to include all oral agreements. Hadley did not want to reduce to writing that which was never written.”

Mr. Danin called the 2004 Bush letter “quite path-breaking,” adding that “it took place in a unique context. Israel was withdrawing from Gaza, unilaterally, it was dismantling settlements for the first time, again unilaterally. What was then called ideological compensation, the United States helped to try to encourage this process of Israel withdrawing from Gaza.”

Aaron David Miller, who has been a senior Middle East adviser to six U.S. secretaries of state, said the United States over the years has sent letters of assurances to Israel, the Palestine Liberation Organization and Middle Eastern states such as Syria, Egypt and Jordan.

In order to entice the Palestinians to participate in the 1991 Madrid peace conference, Mr. Miller said, President George H.W. Bush referred in a letter to PLO leader Yasser Arafat to East Jerusalem as “occupied territory.” Israeli leaders call the same territory their country’s “undivided and eternal capital.”

No U.S. president since George H.W. Bush has publicly called East Jerusalem occupied territory.

“These letters serve a very important function at the time, but as circumstances change parties conclude they are no longer of as much utility and value,” Mr. Miller said.

The 2004 letter is important also because Mr. Obama is looking to start direct negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians in the coming weeks. Both sides now negotiate only indirectly through the offices of George Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader who is Mr. Obama’s personal envoy to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

If the Palestinians agree to direct talks, one of the top agenda items will be the contours and perimeters of a Palestinian-Israeli border.

The Arab League peace proposal says the border should be along the 1949 armistice lines and include the complete withdrawal of Israeli settlements in the territory that the Jewish state won in the 1967 war. The 2004 letter from Mr. Bush directly contradicts the Arab League position.

In the Camp David talks in July 2000 and the Taba talks in January 2001, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators agreed on the concept of land swaps so that population centers over the armistice lines of Jewish Israelis would remain in Israel.

Mr. Netanyahu likely will propose an extension to the current 10-month settlement construction freeze on the West Bank in exchange for a peace process with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

But Mr. Netanyahu and his advisers have not said they would endorse prior Israeli peace offers made during failed negotiations, such as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s 2008 offer to Mr. Abbas to divide Jerusalem and allow international monitors to control access to the Temple Mount, the site that includes both the remnants of the second Jewish Temple and the Al Aqsa Mosque.

Mr. Netanyahu’s Cabinet also has sought to establish the principle that Israel’s final borders be “defensible,” and must give Israel control over positions in the Jordan River Valley.

The Israeli prime minister also has taken a dim view of unilateral territorial withdrawal in light of the recent rocket war from Gaza.

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