Michael Abramowitz, Glenn Kessler
The Washington Post
November 27, 2007 - 1:25pm

Opening a Middle East peace conference in Annapolis this morning, President Bush said that peace must be pursued because "a battle is underway for the future" of the region "and we must not cede victory to the extremists."

In what Bush called a "strong start" for the meeting attended by about 50 countries and international organizations, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators reached agreement shortly before the conference on a joint statement that lays out a path for future talks. The statement, concluded after weeks of negotiations, did not address any of the core issues dividing the two sides, but it did call for negotiations to begin Dec. 12, with an aim of reaching a deal by the end of next year.

Israeli officials celebrated the fact that 12 Arab nations were attending the conference, including countries such as Saudi Arabia and Syria that do not have diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. The officials viewed the Arabs' attendance as a sign that nations opposed to a peace deal with Israel, such as Iran, were isolated.

Bush said achieving peace "will not be easy," but that "now is precisely the right time" because both the Palestinians and Israelis have leaders interested in achieving a deal. "Our purpose here in Annapolis is not to reach an agreement. It is to encourage negotiations" between the two sides, he said.

"Today, Palestinians and Israelis each understand that helping the other to realize their aspirations is the key to realizing their own, and both require an independent, democratic, viable Palestinian state," Bush said. "Such a state will provide Palestinians with the chance to lead lives of freedom, purpose and dignity. And such a state will help provide Israelis with something they have been seeking for generations: to live in peace with their neighbors."

So far, the Bush administration has been reluctant to offer its ideas for bridging disagreements or to impose its version of a settlement. U.S. officials indicated this week that that is unlikely to change.

"The notion that somehow the key to success is simply for the United States to lean on one side or another and jam a settlement through is just not what history has suggested," national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley told reporters Sunday. "Those efforts to jam have not worked."

But Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said Bush has assured that he will not let the new peace effort collapse and that he is willing to devise compromises when the Israelis and Palestinians become deadlocked. "Our coming here means that not only Saudi Arabia but all the other Arab countries were convinced of this commitment, and the seriousness of intent behind this that will hopefully see the breakthrough that everyone is hoping for in the Middle East," he told reporters yesterday.

Bush proclaimed himself "optimistic" about the prospects for an agreement before heading into private meetings yesterday, first with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, then with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Olmert said he was pleased by the backing from other countries. "The international support is very important for us," he said as he thanked the president for helping the parties reach "this point where from we and the Palestinians will sit together, in Jerusalem, and work out something that will be very good to create a great hope for our peoples."

Abbas later hailed Bush's "historic initiative" in convening the Annapolis conference. "We have a great deal of hope that this conference will produce permanent status negotiations . . . that would lead to a comprehensive . . . peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian people," he said, speaking in Arabic through an interpreter.

Today's conference represents something of a departure for Bush, who has generally shunned the close involvement in Middle East peace talks displayed by some former presidents. But Bush and his aides believe the time may be ripe for a new initiative; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has visited the Middle East eight times this year, most recently seeking to coax skeptical Arab countries to attend the conference and to nudge the Israelis and Palestinians into agreeing on a document outlining the issues before them.

In recent days, however, U.S. officials have sought to temper expectations, saying it is no longer so important to come up with a document because both sides have already agreed to hold final negotiations in Annapolis. White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters yesterday the document "would be a nice thing to have, but it's not critical to this meeting. . . . They can launch the negotiations without a document."

The conference is being held in Memorial Hall, a stately Naval Academy room honoring graduates who were killed in action or in other operations. Large marble pillars flank the hall, with murals of naval battles painted onto the archways and a giant skylight in the middle of the roof. Prominently displayed on one wall is a replica of the battle flag hoisted over the U.S. Brig Lawrence as it sailed to battle in 1813 against the British. The flag bears the Navy's motto, "Don't Give Up the Ship," originating from an order by the vessel's namesake.

Conferees from the participating nations and organizations, including the Arab League and European Union, will be seated around a U-shaped table.

Saudi Arabia's Saud said efforts by the administration to ratchet down hopes did not reflect the views of many participants. "The expectations are high regardless of what is said, and I hope that everybody who comes to the conference will be aware of the high expectation and will act accordingly," he said.

Some Middle East experts, moreover, said Olmert and Abbas may need more than Bush administration rhetoric to reach a final settlement. The track record of accomplishment in past meetings between the two is meager, they said, even though the relationship has warmed and they are said to have begun discussing some of the most vexing issues in settling the conflict.

Olmert is a deeply unpopular prime minister and Abbas has had control -- barely -- of only half of the Palestinian territories since the militant group Hamas seized Gaza in June. Yet they will be called upon to make difficult compromises -- and then sell those compromises to their skeptical publics.

Abbas "is trying to negotiate the future of the Palestinian people while he is literally at war with at least half of the Palestinian people," said Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Rice pushed Olmert and Abbas together during a February meeting in Jerusalem. The atmosphere was tense, largely because Abbas had just agreed to create a unity government with Hamas. "It was very uncomfortable," a senior U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivities. "She was just relieved it came off."

The atmosphere improved when the unity deal fell apart and Hamas took over Gaza. Suddenly a militant group was no longer in charge of the government on the West Bank, freeing Olmert to increase contacts and let tax revenue flow back to the Palestinians. The leaders began meeting more frequently; Olmert even traveled to the Palestinian territories to see Abbas and became the first Israeli prime minister to visit the occupied West Bank city of Jericho.

Initially, driven in part by Rice's demand, the men talked mostly about ways to improve Palestinian life in the West Bank.

Olmert eventually agreed to release more than 300 Palestinian prisoners, almost all of them from Abbas's Fatah Party, although that is a tiny fraction of the 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails. Abbas wanted set free many more prisoners, who hold a special place in Palestinian society as symbols of sacrifice. While Olmert agreed to remove about two dozen roadblocks in the West Bank, about 500 military checkpoints and other obstacles remain, choking the economy in the territories.

On Aug. 28, the two men for the first time touched on core issues -- the boundaries of a future Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the right claimed by Palestinian refugees to return to the Jewish state. But Palestinian and Israeli officials said Olmert and Abbas have not come close to resolving any of them.

Diana Butto, a former top Abbas aide, said that talks fill a need for Abbas but are unlikely to ever yield much. "He wants a peace process, but he does not care about the details or the substance so much," she said. "I don't think he has a strategy for liberating the country."

Olmert has long said he would allow some outlying Arab-majority neighborhoods of Jerusalem to be part of a Palestinian state, largely to strengthen the Jewish majority in Israel. But no specific proposals on Jerusalem, such as those that the sides tentatively agreed to in the last formal Israeli-Palestinian talks, emerged from their meetings.

Olmert has never wavered from rejecting the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel. He has said the future Palestinian state is the natural home for the refugees, and his negotiating team demanded in pre-conference talks that the Palestinians recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.

Some Jewish and evangelical Christian groups have expressed concern that Bush is pressuring Israel to make unwise concessions, but Hadley reassured some of them yesterday in a private meeting at the White House. "He was very strong on the point that what the administration is doing is supporting a decision that Prime Minister Olmert of Israel has made" in pursuing a peace deal, said Nathan J. Diament of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.


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