Omar Rashidi/PPO via Getty
President Bush (right) meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday before the Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Md.
President Bush (right) meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday before the Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Md. Omar Rashidi/PPO via Getty
President Bush (right) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the White House on Monday, ahead of the Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Md.
President Bush (right) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the White House on Monday, ahead of the Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Md. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty
President Bush said Monday that he is optimistic that this week's summit in Annapolis, Md., can lead to peace between Palestinians and Israelis.
The president held separate meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in advance of Tuesday's summit, which is intended to launch the first direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians since Bush took office nearly seven years ago.
Israeli and Palestinian leaders have said they want to reach an agreement before Bush leaves office.
"I'm optimistic. I know you're optimistic," Bush told Olmert after their meeting.
After a later meeting, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas emphasized the need to address issues surrounding Palestinian statehood, which have doomed previous peace efforts.
"We have a great deal of hope that this conference will produce permanent status negotiations, expanded negotiations, over all permanent status issues that would lead to a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian people," Abbas said. "This is a great initiative and we need his (Bush's) continuing effort to achieve this objective."
International Support Crucial
Olmert said international support — from Bush and the Arab nations attending the conference — could make a big difference in a continuing peace dialogue.
"This time, it's different because we are going to have a lot of participation in what I hope will launch a serious process of negotiations between us and the Palestinians," Olmert said, referring to the talks expected to begin after the Annapolis meetings.
"We and the Palestinians will sit together in Jerusalem and work out something that will be very good," Olmert said.
Some in Bush's administration doubt that a settlement is possible in such a short timeframe and have reservations about whether the Palestinians, in particular, are ready to make necessary concessions. The goal of the talks is to set up an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Bush's tempered outlook as he readied the Annapolis conference suggested he has his own misgivings, although administration spokesmen said the United States will remain closely involved after Tuesday's session closes.
"The president is personally committed to moving this process forward; Secretary (of State Condoleezza) Rice is personally committed to moving this process forward," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Monday. "But ultimately, it's going to come down to the two parties and bridging the differences that now exist between them on all the issues that we know are out there."
Criticism of the conference underscored the enormous challenge ahead.
Leaders of the Islamic militant group Hamas labeled Abbas a traitor even for going to the meeting and vowed to reject any decisions to come out of the conference.
In Jerusalem, more than 20,000 Israelis gathered at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, to protest the conference. Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu labeled the summit "a continuation of one-sided concessions."
As preparations for the Annapolis summit went on Monday, violence continued in the Mideast. The Israeli military killed four Palestinians in the Gaza Strip in an airstrike and a ground clash.
Outline for Talks Expected
Bush will open the Annapolis conference with a speech. He is expected to make it clear that Mideast peace is a top priority for the administration, but he is also expected to say that the time is not right for him to advance his own ideas on how to achieve that, aides said.
Washington has tried to make ongoing cooperation between the two Mideast leaders and their staff members the focus of the Annapolis conference, playing down the roles of Bush and Rice. Bush was to toast the conference guests at a dinner later Monday hosted by Rice at the State Department.
U.S. officials have also tried to keep expectations for the U.S.-sponsored conference low, an easy task among skeptical Arab states, calling it a starting point for talks and not an attempt to settle anything.
The tortuous progress of a joint Israeli-Palestinian declaration to be presented at Annapolis is an indication of how difficult those talks will be.
After months of trying to forge a joint outline, Israel and the Palestinians have made an 11th-hour push in recent days to come up with a statement that their U.S. hosts call a "work plan" for the coming talks.
"We will reach a joint paper today or tomorrow," Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior aide to Abbas, told The Associated Press. "There is a persistent American effort to have this statement."
Talks on the joint statement had faltered over a Palestinian desire that it address, at least in general terms, key issues of Palestinian statehood — final borders, sovereignty over disputed Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees who lost homes in Israel following its 1948 creation.
Israel has pressed for a more vague statement of commitment to two states living side by side in peace.
From NPR reports and The Associated Press