WASHINGTON – President Bush will lend his clout Monday to help broker an elusive agreement between Israel and the Palestinians on the contours of long-stalled peace talks the two sides expect to relaunch this week at a high-stakes international conference.
Resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been a priority of a succession of U.S. presidents, and late in his two-term tenure, Bush has made that long-coveted diplomatic victory his goal, too.
Bush invited the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to separate meetings at the White House on Monday to prepare for the centerpiece of his Mideast gathering — an all-day session Tuesday in Annapolis, Md.
"I remain personally committed to implementing my vision of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security," Bush said Sunday in a statement on the international gathering that begins Monday night with a dinner.
"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," he said.
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 not expected to advance any of his own ideas on how to achieve that, Bush national security adviser Stephen Hadley said Sunday.
"It is now time for the parties to get into this process by way of negotiation," Hadley told reporters. "And I don't think the president will conclude that the time is right to start offering ideas on outcomes on specific issues. ... This is not a negotiation session. It is to launch a negotiation, and for the parties then to take a lead."
Hadley also said the joint statement was not as important as it had initially appeared. The two sides had taken the unexpected step of agreeing to negotiations, so the document was no longer a vehicle necessary to bring them to that point, he said.
"If we get something, if they can agree on some things as an input to the negotiations, that would be fine," Hadley said. "But I think it is really no longer on the critical path to a successful conference."
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. He will be asked to use his presidential heft to promote a joint blueprint for talks that are to follow, Israeli and Palestinian officials said Sunday.
Clinching a joint statement of objectives from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert might prove to be an impossibly tall order because of the charged issues that divide the two sides. On more than one occasion, negotiations have splintered over the key questions of Palestinian statehood — final borders, sovereignty over disputed Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees who lost homes in Israel following its 1948 creation.
The Palestinians want the statement to address those issues in general terms. But Israel wants to leave them for post-conference talks, and has pressed for a broader, vaguer statement of commitment to two states living side-by-side in peace.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wasn't able to bridge the gaps, even after eight missions to the region this year.
If the two sides can't even manage to come up with a shared statement of objectives, that could augur ill for the future of peace talks, which are to be renewed after seven years of still-simmering violence.
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.
Still, whatever joint agreement the Israelis and Palestinians present at Annapolis will be a starting point and is likely to sketch only vague bargaining terms. The big questions that have doomed previous peace efforts would come later.
Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo said Palestinians hope to work out a joint document, but that an agreement is not essential because of assurances received in the U.S. invitation to the conference.
That invitation, he said, "includes all the terms of reference for the future negotiation" and "confirms that both sides are committed" to putting in place the peace process. "This is enough to launch negotiations after the conference."
Olmert made it clear that Annapolis is but a start.
"I hope Annapolis will allow the launching of serious negotiations on all the core issues that will lead to a solution of two states for two peoples," Olmert said Sunday.
The Arab League endorsement of the conference, while reluctant, is considered crucial because Abbas needs to be shored up, especially after Islamic Hamas militants routed his loyalists in the Gaza Strip in June and now rule there.
Syria, which has been in a state of war with Israel for six decades, agreed Sunday to attend the session, giving Bush full backing from all 16 Arab states who were invited, plus the Arab League. It hopes to use forum to press for the return of the Golan Heights, strategic territory Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 war.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who is leading negotiations for her country, suggested a lack of Arab backing contributed to the failure of the last round of talks.
The Arab world, Livni told reporters Sunday, "should stop sitting on the fence."
"There isn't a single Palestinian who can reach an agreement without Arab support," she said.
Still, Livni added, "it is not the role of the Arab world to define the terms of the negotiations or take part in them."