WASHINGTON – President Bush stepped cautiously into the most direct Mideast peacemaking of his administration on Monday, meeting separately with the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to explore whether peace is possible.
A day ahead of a major Mideast peace conference in Annapolis, Md., Bush said he was optimistic. The gathering is to launch the first direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians of Bush's nearly seven years in office, and has attracted Arab and other outside backing.
Israeli and Palestinian leaders have already said they want to conclude a bargain within the 14 months that Bush has left in office.
Bush emerged from an Oval Office meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and told him: "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. I'm optimistic. I know that you're optimistic."
Next, he met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who stressed the need to address issues of Palestinian statehood, sticking points that 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," he said. "This is a great initiative and we need his (Bush's) continuing effort to achieve this objective."
Olmert said that international support — from Bush and also, presumably, from the Arab nations that will attend the conference — could make this effort succeed where others have failed.
"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. He was 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," Olmert said. As to timing, he added later: "We definitely will have to sit down very soon."
Some in Bush's administration doubt that a settlement is possible in such a short time frame 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 directed at the conference from afar pointed to the enormity of the challenge.
Leaders of the Islamic militant group Hamas labeled Abbas a traitor even for coming 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."
In Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a speech that the conference "has already failed" and that the U.S. was only trying to preserve its reputation.
The events unfolded as the Israeli military killed four Palestinians in the Gaza Strip in an airstrike and a ground clash.
At a briefing with reporters, Olmert pounded his fist on a desk as he spoke of the need to work toward peace despite difficulties.
"We want to move forward," he declared. "We don't want the status quo."
But he also said Israel would insist that the Palestinians fight terror in Hamas-ruled Gaza before any peace deal would be implemented.
Bush will open the Annapolis conference with a speech. He'll make clear that Mideast peace is a top priority, but he is expected to conclude 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 "workplan" 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."
The agreement that was shaping up, as Palestinian official Yasser Abed Rabbo described it, is a starting point for negotiations and sketches only vague bargaining terms. The big questions that have doomed previous peace efforts would come later.
The document, which the two parties have struggled for months to forge, was to include a formal announcement of the renewal of peace talks, Abed Rabbo said. It will set a target of concluding negotiations before Bush leaves office in January 2009. And it commits the two sides to resolving the key issues that divide them.
But in a reflection of how charged the negotiations over the document have been, the key issues are not identified. Disputes over these issues — final borders, sovereignty over disputed Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees who lost homes in the war that followed Israel's 1948 creation — have tormented peace efforts for decades.