WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – U.S. President George W. Bush will revive long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at a White House summit on Wednesday but will find it hard to meet a deadline for securing a deal before he leaves office.
Bush is bringing together Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas one day after a 44-nation conference where both pledged to try to forge a peace treaty by the end of 2008 that would create a Palestinian state.
Finally embracing a hands-on approach he disdained after Bill Clinton failed to broker a peace accord in the twilight of his presidency, Bush will use the White House meeting to formally jumpstart negotiations between the two sides. His aim is to achieve in his final 14 months in office what has eluded U.S. administrations for decades. But all three leaders are politically weak at home, raising doubts whether they can make good on their commitments, and lingering mistrust between Israel and Palestinians will make any progress difficult. “This work will be hard. It involves risks and sacrifices,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged at the end of the one-day Middle East conference in Annapolis, Maryland.
Russia will host the next Middle East peace conference, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies on Wednesday. “We have yet to agree on the timing and agenda of this meeting,” Lavrov told reporters on board a plane on his way home from the Annapolis conference.
Bush, who faced criticism for not doing more sooner to resolve the conflict, opened Tuesday’s conference at the U.S. Naval Academy by reading a joint statement painstakingly negotiated by the two sides but which skirted the core issues that divide them.
Bush, however, lauded Olmert and Abbas for agreeing to “good faith, bilateral negotiations,” and Israel and the Palestinians committed themselves to send negotiating teams to a new session in Jerusalem on Dec. 12.
Standing before delegations that included some of their skeptical Arab neighbors, Olmert and Abbas sealed their pledge with an awkward handshake as Bush looked on, smiling stiffly. But the Arab presence itself, including Saudi Arabia and Syria, gave an obvious boost to Bush’s most serious peace drive since he took office in 2001.
As for the United States, another motivation for many participants was the desire to offset the growing regional influence of Iran, an outspoken opponent of peace efforts with the Jewish state.
Bush also hopes for a foreign policy success to polish his legacy, but the unpopular war in Iraq, the main factor in his low public approval ratings, could limit his room to maneuver.
Olmert’s public standing is also low, partly due to last year’s Lebanon war, and rightist coalition partners have warned against concessions. Abbas lost control of Gaza to Hamas Islamists in June and only holds sway in the West Bank.
The Annapolis accord emerged from last-minute talks on a joint document meant to chart the course for negotiating the toughest “final status” issues of the conflict — Jerusalem, borders, security and the fate of Palestinian refugees. “No one believes that failure is an option,” Rice said.
Both sides agreed to give a U.S. general the power to judge whether Israel was freezing settlement activity and whether Palestinians were reining in militants as demanded by a long-dormant U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan. But beyond accepting a framework for peace talks, neither Olmert nor Abbas gave any sign of ceding ground on their main differences when they addressed the conference. And Olmert later hinted the timetable may not be as firm as Bush might hope. Asked if the sides could clinch a deal in only a year, Olmert told the PBS television program “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer”: “I don’t know. I said I will make every possible effort.”
Underscoring the challenges ahead, a senior official of Hamas declared Annapolis a “waste of time.”