Broad brush of the White House fails to pick out details

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The Independent US

George Bush has promised to commit "as much time as necessary" to brokering a peace settlement between the Palestinians and Israelis. Few believe his first face-to-face foray into the negotiating arena this week will achieve this end.

Today's three-way summit with Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas, the Israeli and Palestinian Prime Ministers, kicks off the road-map process unveiled in April by the US, the EU, the United Nations and Russia, and intended to lead to a final settlement and the permanent creation of two separate states by the end of 2005.

America believes the moment could not be more propitious, after the fall of Saddam Hussein and the ever-clearer realisation by both sides that violence and reprisal are leading nowhere. Condoleezza Rice, Mr Bush's National Security Adviser, spoke yesterday of the "new conditions" in the region - above all the election of a new Palestinian premier, the enlistment of support from Arab leaders shaken by the US feat of arms in Iraq, and the common rejection of terrorism.

But age-old realities in the Middle East, domestic political considerations in America and Mr Bush's own approach to complicated issues all conspire in the opposite direction. Even Ms Rice acknowledged the process would be difficult, and avoided any mention of the road-map's destination date of 2005.

The biggest reality is that the goal of Middle East peace has eluded every president before Mr Bush. In this dispute the devil lies in the detail, and Mr Bush is notorious for his aversion to detail. But one lesson of past efforts is that, in the end, there is no alternative to presidents becoming involved in the minutiae.

The fiendishly complicated problems at the root of the dispute - the precise borders of future Palestinian and Israeli states, the status of Jerusalem and the right of return of refugees - are not to Mr Bush's taste.

To aides, the President has dismissed these questions as "all those old issues," while his officials have privately argued that the near-obsessive involvement of his predecessor, Bill Clinton, may have actually made matters worse, creating a disappointment that led to the eruption of violence after the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000.

The Bush approach - and not only to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute - relies on the broad brush. He sets out a goal or proclaims a policy, and leaves the achievement and implementation of them to others. This time, moreover, domestic political calculations could interfere with Mr Bush's "vision". The risk is not that Mr Bush will lose political capital if his peace mission flounders - no American president has had it held against him that he tried and failed to secure peace. The question is how sternly this one will demand concessions from Mr Sharon.

With the US presidential election less than 18 months off, excessive pressure on the Israeli leader could upset Jewish voters courted by the Republicans, especially in swing states such as Florida. Mr Bush also must not alienate his core constituency of the Christian right, an ardent supporter of the Israelis.