Mohammed Daraghmeh, Amy Teibel
The Associated Press
November 26, 2007 - 12:45pm

Hours before the opening of a high-stakes international conference on the Middle East, President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed hope Monday that peace finally could be achieved. A senior member of the Palestinian delegation said an elusive joint statement on the contours for future talks was within reach.

"I'm looking forward to continuing our serious dialogue with you and the president of the Palestinian Authority to see whether or not peace is possible," Bush said after meeting with Olmert in the Oval Office ahead of the conference. Bush had a similar meeting scheduled with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas later in the day. "I'm optimistic," Bush said.

Olmert said that international support _ from Bush and also, presumably, from the Arab nations that will attend the conference in Annapolis, Md. _ "is very important to us" and could make all the difference.

"This time, it's different because we are going to have a lot of participation in what I hope will launch a serious process negotiation between us and the Palestinians," Olmert said, referring to the talks expected to begin in earnest after this week's U.S.-hosted meetings. "We and the Palestinians will sit together in Jerusalem and work out something that will be very good."

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 for presentation at Tuesday's gathering in Annapolis, Md. It is to be the first time that Israel, a large group of Arab states and international envoys from around the world will sit down together to try to relaunch a peace process. Later Monday, the conference gets under way with a dinner at the State Department.

"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 broader, vaguer statement of commitment to two states living side-by-side in peace. It has promised to negotiate the contentious issues, however, in the formal negotiations that are to follow the conference.

Bush will open the Annapolis conference with a speech. He'll make clear that Mideast peace is a top priority for the rest of his time in office through January 2009, but he is expected to conclude that the time is not right for him to advance his own ideas on how to achieve that, Bush national security adviser Stephen Hadley said Sunday.

"The Israelis and Palestinians have waited a long time for this vision to be realized, and I call upon all those gathering in Annapolis this week to redouble their efforts to turn dreams of peace into reality," Bush said Sunday night in a statement.

Hadley said the Annapolis sessions are designed not to be negotiations, but to launch them. And because the two sides already have taken the unexpected step of agreeing to negotiations, the joint document became less necessary as a vehicle to bring them to that point, he said.

The run-up to the meeting has been fraught with disputes, skepticism and suspicion about the opposing parties' good faith. And expectations remain low. But Bush has been buoyed by Arab endorsement of the meeting and the possibilities for broader peacemaking.

Clinching a joint statement of objectives from Abbas and Olmert might was seen as a tall order because of the charged issues that divide the two sides. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wasn't able to bridge the gaps, even after eight missions to the region this year. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met late Sunday with Rice in a last-ditch effort to wrap up the task.

"We're confident there will be a document and we'll get to Annapolis in good shape on that," but bargaining may continue behind the scenes on Tuesday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.


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