( AFP ) - Israeli and Palestinian leaders promised to push for a peace deal by the end of 2008 ahead of launching their new campaign with President George W. Bush at the White House on Wednesday.
Bush was to host Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert one day after they agreed at a Middle East peace conference to make a new bid for a comprehensive accord.
The new talks -- part victory lap after the unprecedented meeting, part final reassurances that Washington means to see the process through -- were to culminate with a joint public appearance in the White House Rose Garden.
Amid the widespread skepticism before the conference, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino quipped with relief that it would be "like the after-party" following a big event, but insisted Bush would emphasize "that he said he was committed, and he means it".
"He's got an open mind, and he's got a wide-open door, and the phone lines are open and they can call him any time. And so I think that's one of the things that he'll reinforce with them," she told reporters.
The US president was to meet first with Abbas, then Olmert, then hold a three-way session before making a statement in the Rose Garden at 2:05 pm (1905 GMT) with his two guests at his side.
With delegates from 50 countries -- including Saudi Arabia and Syria and other countries that do not recognise Israel -- watching, Olmert and Abbas agreed to a set of principles for talks Bush hopes will help create an independent Palestinian state before he leaves office in January 2009.
But within hours of the announcement, Olmert said the deadline might slip "but you have to start somewhere. And we are committed, absolutely, to help start it."
The Israeli press greeted the peace pledge with skepticism. The Yediot Aharonot daily said: "Only a miracle can complete it within a year."
Bush brushed aside the doubters, telling the conference at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland that "now is precisely the right time to begin these negotiations".
He cited a new willingness among the leaders of both sides as well as global support for fresh negotiations, and warned "we must not cede victory to the extremists".
The conference amounted to Bush's biggest push for Middle East peace since he took office in 2001.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said later the new negotiations would begin on Wednesday at the White House between Olmert and Abbas.
But Bush acknowledged sealing a deal would not be easy, and in a sign of the difficulties ahead, tens of thousands of Palestinian Islamists poured onto the streets in Gaza and the West Bank in protests which left one Palestinian dead.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev told reporters that groups like Hamas in the Palestinian territories are "the Achilles heel" of the new peace process because they could change the agenda with attacks.
Israeli settlers in the West Bank were also anxiously watching the outcome of the talks fearing they could spell the end of their dream of a "Greater Israel".
But Abbas told his people to "trust in the future, for an independent Palestine is arriving," while Olmert vowed Israel was prepared to make a "painful compromise" to achieve peace.
The joint statement from the Palestinians and Israelis was a victory for Bush, only hammered out moments before his keynote speech with his direct intervention, the White House said.
Major differences remain over core issues like the status of Jerusalem, the borders of a future Palestinian state and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
But the first meeting of a top-level steering committee is to be held on December 12, and the two sides agreed "to conclude a peace treaty resolving all outstanding issues".
Abbas urged direct and concrete measures on the ground to show that the world was "committed to the irreversible march towards peace".
He also called on Israel "to end completely settlements ... reopen Palestinian institutions closed in east Jerusalem, dismantle non-authorized settlements, lift all barriers and free the prisoners".
Olmert called for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace deal as Israel only has full diplomatic relations with three Arab countries: Egypt, Jordan and Mauritania.
But he was rebuffed by Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who said Riyadh supported the new talks but that a comprehensive deal required Israel first to withdraw from occupied Arab land.
Saudi Arabia drew up an Arab peace initiative offering formal diplomatic ties with Israel in return for an Israeli pullout from all land occupied in the 1967 war.
Russia said it would host a follow-up conference in Moscow.