ANNAPOLIS, Md. – After months of frantic diplomacy, top officials from more than 40 nations converge on this historic state capital Tuesday for what President Bush hopes will be the launch of the first Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in seven years.
Buffeted by skepticism over prospects the Annapolis Conference can set the stage for the creation of a Palestinian state by the end of Bush's second term, his administration has downplayed expectations for major breakthroughs but insists the exercise is not futile.
Expressing optimism, Bush saw the two main players, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, separately at the White House on Monday to nudge them closer to agreement on the conference centerpiece, a joint document or "workplan" on new talks.
But even with his efforts, including a pep talk to all participants at a State Department dinner, and those of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who held last-minute talks Monday with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, the two sides had not yet bridged the gaps, officials said.
"We've come together this week because we share a common goal: two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security," Bush said. "Achieving this goal requires difficult compromises, and the Israelis and Palestinians have elected leaders committed to making them."
Shortly before his toast, a senior Palestinian official said progress on the document — a starting point for negotiations that sketches only vague bargaining terms — was being made but stressed it was still a work in progress.
Bush will gather Abbas and Olmert together at the U.S. Naval Academy ahead of the opening of the conference on Tuesday at which all three men will speak.
The session will then be turned over to Rice and the delegations of others there, including Syria and Saudi Arabia, members of the diplomatic "quartet" on the Middle East, members of the U.N. Security Council, and the Group of Eight industrialized nations among others.
The quartet — the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia — expressed strong support for the Annapolis conference in a statement Monday.
The Israeli and Palestinian leaders say they want to forge an end to one of the world's oldest and most intractable conflicts within the 14 months that Bush has left in office. And, they say, participation by such a wide array of countries, particularly Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Syria that do not recognize Israel, is considered critical to chances for success.
Saudi Arabia said it agreed to attend after receiving assurances that the Bush administration would remain energetic after the talks begin. But asked if he would shake hands with Olmert, the kingdom's foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, gave a curt no.
"We are here for the serious business of making peace," he said. "It is not a sporting contest where you shake hands and let the best man win."
Yet Olmert said the international support could make this effort succeed where all 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," he said.
"We want to move forward," Olmert said. "We don't want the status quo."
Abbas stressed the need to address sticking points that have doomed previous peace attempts. "We have a great deal of hope that this conference will produce permanent status negotiations ... that would lead to a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian people," he said.
But just hours before the conference, the major parties still had still not framed a blueprint for peace talks and remained at odds over the key issues that have doomed all previous attempts.
The negotiating document under preparation was intended to set a target of concluding negotiations before Bush leaves office in January 2009 and commit the two sides to resolving the key issues that divide them. However, as of late Monday those issues were not identified in any formal working paper. 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.
Meanwhile, criticism of the conference from the Middle East underscored 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.