ANNAPOLIS, Maryland, (Reuters) – President George W. Bush opens a high-stakes Israeli-Palestinian peace conference on Tuesday, trying to achieve in his final 14 months in office a goal that has eluded U.S. leaders for decades.
Finally embracing a hands-on approach he disdained after his predecessor Bill Clinton failed to broker a deal in the twilight of his presidency, Bush is hosting the most ambitious round of international Middle East diplomacy in seven years.
The talks are aimed at jump-starting a long-dormant peace process and negotiations for creating a Palestinian state. But with lingering mistrust and daily violence between the two sides, no one expects a swift breakthrough.
Hoping to salvage a foreign policy legacy likely to be dominated by the unpopular Iraq war, Bush will address the one-day conference in Annapolis, Maryland, attended by more than 40 states, including Saudi Arabia, Syria and other Arab powers.
Like the United States, many participants are driven by the desire to offset the growing influence of non-Arab Iran — an opponent of peace with the Jewish state. Tehran said on Tuesday it had built a new long-range missile. The weapon matches the range of another Iranian missile that can hit Israel. Bush’s speech at the U.S. Naval Academy, sandwiched between his talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, will be the centerpiece of his most direct role in Middle East peacemaking, something he had mostly shunned since taking office in 2001.
“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 at a dinner for participants on the eve of the conference near Washington. “Achieving this goal requires difficult compromises.”
A senior Palestinian official said Abbas was expected to stress that the international conference represented a unique opportunity for a comprehensive peace, which he hoped could be achieved before Bush leaves office.
Joining the talks are Syria, a front-line state formally at war with Israel, and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. Their presence is considered a diplomatic coup for the Bush administration. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will shepherd the conference.
The meeting includes a session on the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967 and which Damascus hopes to regain. “We participate with the understanding that the Golan will be discussed,” Syrian diplomat Ahmad Salkini told Reuters.
Despite Bush’s insistence on a renewed U.S. commitment and a call for stepped-up international support for the peace process, expectations were low for major strides in the three days of meetings that started at the White House on Monday.
Bush, Olmert and Abbas all face serious problems at home.
Abbas lost control of the Gaza Strip in June to Hamas Islamists, whose leader in the enclave denounced Annapolis as a “festival” to bolster the “Zionist enemy” and said any concessions made by Abbas would not be binding for Palestinians.
Olmert is unpopular and faces opposition to concessions from members of his coalition. Some critics suggest he is using peace talks to fend off a critical public inquiry and graft probes. Bush, politically hobbled by the Iraq war, leaves office in January 2009. The campaign to succeed him is in full swing.
In a reminder of violence that has gone on for decades, Israeli troops killed two Palestinian militants in Gaza on Tuesday. Gaza medical staff said a civilian was also killed.
The sides were still haggling on Monday evening over a joint document, though officials said they were close to agreement.
The document is meant to chart the course for negotiating the toughest “final status” issues of the conflict — Jerusalem, borders, security and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
At Annapolis, the two sides are also expected to recommit to a 2003 “road map” that calls for a freeze of Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank occupied by Israel since a 1967 war as well as a crackdown by Palestinians on their militants.
In his address, Abbas was expected to urge an immediate start to follow-up negotiations on these “final-status” issues.
Palestinian officials and U.S. diplomats have said in recent weeks that Russia, a member of the Quartet of Middle East mediators, may host a follow-up to Annapolis in three months.
Discussion of such meetings has been prompted by efforts to reconcile Palestinian demands for a deadline for concluding a deal with Israeli rejection of fixed timetables.