Israel's foreign minister said Tuesday that an upcoming peace conference in the United States offers a crucial opportunity for progress, amid growing optimism that this time - just maybe - momentum for peace is real and sustainable.
But despite the signs of hope, a slew of obstacles remain: Syria may not come to the Annapolis, Md., meeting, Saudi Arabia has yet to endorse the emerging peace framework, and the Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. leaderships all find themselves in weakened political states.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced Tuesday that the Annapolis conference would be during the last week of November, and that the Americans would "issue the invitations in the coming days." Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia said the conference would convene on Nov. 26, citing a date for the first time.
And in Portugal, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni voiced unflinching support for the U.S.-backed "road map" for peace, which she called "the only agreed plan in town - in the world."
She praised the Palestinians for making "the right steps on the ground," an apparent reference to security measures taken by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Livni's comments came at the end of an EU-Mideast summit in the Portuguese capital, part of an intensified diplomatic push by Washington and the European Union to lay the groundwork for the Annapolis meeting.
Livni said the U.S. peace talks - which are expected to bring together Israel, the Palestinians and other Middle Eastern powers - offered an important opportunity, but were just one more step on a long road.
"We believe in the need to take this opportunity to find common ground with Palestinian leaders," she said. " Annapolis is part of a process. ... No less important is the day after Annapolis."
Livni said the Arab world must "support the moderate Palestinians."
"We expect them to support the process, to support any compromise the Palestinians need to take in order to achieve peace with Israel, and not to dictate the outcome," she said.
That peace is even a possibility is nothing short of remarkable.
Olmert, who is battling corruption allegations and the fallout from Israel's less-than-successful summer 2006 war in Lebanon, has seen his popularity plummet; Abbas has been weakened by the Islamic hardline group Hamas' takeover of the Gaza Strip; and President Bush is in the twilight of an unpopular presidency.
Great things are seldom achieved by governments in such positions.
But optimists say the leaders' woes could actually be a boon to the process, with all three hoping to remake their legacies by bringing concrete results where those before them failed.
With just a few weeks to go before the conference, much is left to be ironed out.
Syria, which is among the countries likely to be invited, said it would attend only if discussions included the return of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed. The position has been rejected by Israel, even though a peace deal involving a return of the Golan was close in the 1990s.
Saudi Arabia, a crucial powerbroker, has been reluctant to endorse the meeting until there are clear signs that major issues will be addressed seriously there.
And then there is the reality on the ground.
On Tuesday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak expressed doubts about peace efforts while the Hamas militant group controls the Gaza Strip. Hamas - which has never retracted calls for Israel's destruction - overran the territory in June, routing troops loyal to Abbas.
Barak said Israel could not begin implementing a peace agreement until Abbas disarmed Hamas in Gaza, a demand that could hamper peace efforts because Abbas has little control over Gaza.
Barak has been saying for weeks that it was only a matter of time before Israel launched a large-scale military incursion in Gaza, but on Tuesday said he did not want to jeopardize the Mideast conference, saying Israel had no plans to invade in the near future to halt rocket attacks out of the area on southern Israel.
Israel and the Palestinians are yet to agree on a written set of principles outlining a future peace agreement ahead of the conference, and negotiators say they have made little progress.
The Palestinians want the document to address "core" issues in the conflict: future borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state, the status of disputed Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
Israel wants a much vaguer document.
But Olmert has said he is prepared to discuss these issues after the conference - and he sounded determined to make progress in a speech this week in which he said that "there is no reason to suffer the same foot-dragging which previously characterized our discussions."
At the Lisbon gathering, European officials at the Lisbon gathering said that after years of false starts, they sensed things were different this time around.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said there was "a new hope, a new optimism" about the prospects for peace, while Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado said the talks in Lisbon revealed "an enormous convergence of positions" between the Israelis and Palestinians about how the negotiations are proceeding.
Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European Union's commissioner for external relations, told the closed-door meeting that she hoped the world was "on the brink of making progress toward settling this terrible, long-standing conflict," according to a transcript of her remarks.
She acknowledged that there was a long way to go before peace could be achieved, but added hopefully that an Asian proverb teaches that: "A journey of one thousand miles begins with the first step." ( AP )