President Bush and his top aides have repeatedly said they want to improve relations with European allies in Bush's second term, beginning with a presidential visit in February. Bush has also said he believes the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has provided a new opportunity to pursue peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Yet those twin goals will be continually tested and at times may conflict in the coming year, administration and European officials say.
Few issues separate the Bush administration from Europe as much as which course to pursue in the Middle East. European officials, in fact, have signaled they believe that Bush's willingness to bend to their view on the Israeli-Palestinian issue will be a true test of his sincerity about improving relations.
"The test of an enhanced Euro-Atlantic relationship will be the ability to relaunch the peace process between Israelis and the Palestinians," French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said this month, shortly before he met with Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice at the residence of the French ambassador.
The different approaches to the Middle East conflict are substantive, although for diplomatic reasons both sides are eager to play them down in public. That issue has also moved to the forefront of the U.S.-European relationship because differences over two others -- the war in Iraq and the Iranian nuclear program -- have at least temporarily been put to the side.
Europeans are more apt to focus on the plight of the Palestinians and criticize Israeli actions. The United States, a fierce defender of Israel, has demanded that Palestinian militant groups be dismantled before progress can be made on peace talks.
The Bush administration has been much more supportive of Israel's plan to leave the Gaza Strip as a precursor to broader engagement. European officials have pressed for immediate talks between Israel and the Palestinians on how to create a viable Palestinian state.
Europeans believe that Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, wants to freeze the process and consolidate Israel's hold on the West Bank after Israeli troops leave Gaza. U.S. officials argue that the Gaza withdrawal -- which Sharon first proposed a year ago as a unilateral action -- is part of the plan of reciprocal steps known as the "road map."
In Middle East diplomacy, the Europeans have generally been the bankers, providing vast sums of money to keep the Palestinian Authority functioning. But they have little leverage over Israel, leaving the United States to deal with the nuts and bolts of fashioning an agreement between the two sides.
At the heart of the U.S.-European divide over the conflict is the Europeans' belief that although Bush says he wants to help create a Palestinian state, he keeps giving Israel a pass. Instead, they believe, Bush has devoted little attention to the issue while maintaining public pressure on the Palestinians to take most of the initial steps.
"We want more than just words and statements," said a European diplomat, who requested anonymity in order to speak more frankly. "In the first term, between speeches and military adventures, there was very little diplomacy" by the Bush administration.
Bush, in his Dec. 20 news conference, appeared to acknowledge he had heard this complaint from his European counterparts.
"I know the world is wondering whether or not this is just empty rhetoric, or do I really believe that now is the time to move the process forward," Bush said when asked whether he would actively try to resolve the conflict in his second term. "And the answer is: Now is the time to move the process forward."
Israeli officials acknowledge that Europeans appear to be counting on using Bush's interest in improving relations as a lever for increasing pressure on the Jewish state. But they remain confident that Bush will still put much of the onus on the new Palestinian leadership to demonstrate its sincerity.