WASHINGTON – Even with a cease-fire pledge from Israeli and Palestinian leaders, President Bush (search) is moving slowly to involve himself and U.S. prestige in the always risky, often disappointing Mideast peace process (search).
The fizzling of 10 announced cease-fires over the past four years is a sobering lesson for an already deliberate administration. Bush has refused to take short cuts, and he accepts the principle that the parties — not outsiders — bear ultimate responsibility for their fate.
In one respect, though, Bush already has turned a corner in agreeing to his first meeting with a Palestinian leader. He will confer separately this spring with Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search).
Bush shunned the late Yasser Arafat but has agreed to work with Arafat's successor. His cautious engagement and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's promise to play an active role in promoting a settlement bring the administration deeper into mediating the conflict than it has been in a year and a half.
"This is a time of opportunity," Rice said Tuesday at a news conference in Rome. But she balanced that positive note with an admonition: "There's a long road ahead of the Israelis and Palestinians."
She acknowledged limitations of the Palestinian security forces that the United States will work to shore up but said "there are places where they can act ... and they need to act where they can act."
The administration plans to send a security adviser to the region, choosing Army Lt. Gen. William E. Ward, who will be in close contact with Rice. Bush also is seeking $350 million in aid for the Palestinians.
No matter what approach the administration adopts, Europeans and Arabs — and some prominent Americans — are bound to clamor for greater involvement.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser in the Carter administration, called Bush's first-term effort "under-engaged" and suggested that the president use the new opportunity to make specific recommendations on an accord.
Among Brzezinski's proposals are an end to all Jewish settlements except a cluster near Jerusalem, relocation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in the abandoned settlements, sharing of Jerusalem, and demilitarization of the Palestinian state that Bush has endorsed.
Brzezinski, who helped Carter work out peace terms between Israel and Egypt at Camp David in 1978, argued that while some would reject such a package, it would gradually win the support of a majority of Arabs and Israelis.
But Bush does not appear inclined to move that fast, or that boldly, and several Middle East analysts agreed with his measured approach.
With Sharon preparing to withdraw from Gaza as well as from an area of the West Bank, "we should not talk too early about what else they need to do," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"We should not burden this effort with grand visions or plans or blueprints which would derail the possibility of success," Satloff said.
Edward S. Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and to Israel, said "the U.S. role is to help the sides talk to each other" and "not get into the middle of their negotiations."
"We should play the cheerleader role, and the waterboy and equipment manager," Walker said. "The Israelis and Palestinians are doing well on their own."
The two sides held a Tuesday summit at a Red Sea resort with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah II. In addition to the cease-fire, Israel will immediately release 500 Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture, with 400 more to be freed later.
The Israeli and Palestinian leaders also agreed to meet again.
If the two sides make serious headway toward a settlement, history shows that they will be looking to the United States for mediation. But, Walker said, "the president isn't going to want to be committed unless he is sure they are serious — both sides."
U.S. presidents and secretaries of state have assumed tough mediating roles only after the two sides have narrowed their differences.
Beginning with Henry Kissinger in 1973, secretaries of state have made exhaustive trips to the region to try to promote accords. During the Clinton administration, Warren Christopher made more than two dozen trips to Syria in a futile attempt to steer Israel and Syria into an agreement.
President Clinton rolled up his sleeves and worked into the early morning hours in a desperate but unsuccessful attempt to get Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak into an agreement.