President Bush stepped cautiously into the most direct Mideast peacemaking of his administration on Monday, meeting separately with the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to explore whether peace is possible. "Difficult compromises" will be required but the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are committed to making them, he said. A day ahead of a major Mideast peace conference in Annapolis, Md., Bush said he was optimistic. The gathering is to launch the first direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians of Bush's nearly seven years in office, and has attracted Arab and other outside backing.
Israeli and Palestinian leaders have already said they want to conclude a bargain within the 14 months that Bush has left in office. The two sides were unable to frame a blueprint for the talks before they came to the United States, and negotiations over the text were expected to continue into Tuesday. Bush earlier emerged from an Oval Office meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert . Next, he met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas . Earlier, Olmert said that international support - from Bush and also, presumably, from the Arab nations that will attend the conference - could make this effort succeed where others have failed. The agreement that was shaping up, as Palestinian official Yasser Abed Rabbo described it, is a starting point for negotiations and sketches only vague bargaining terms. The big questions that have doomed previous peace efforts would come later. The document was to include a formal announcement of the renewal of peace talks, Abed Rabbo said. It will set a target of concluding negotiations before Bush leaves office in January 2009. And it commits the two sides to resolving the key issues that divide them.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia said after an afternoon meeting with Rice, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and others that details of the document had not been finalized. "Our efforts are still going on to reach this document," he said. All sides have agreed that two states should be established, but the Palestinians have objected to referring to Israel as a "Jewish state." The Palestinians and their Arab backers are concerned that a specific reference to a Jewish state would prejudice the right of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians who claim a right to return to land they once owned inside Israel.The Palestinian question underlies numerous other conflicts and grievances in the Middle East, and has scattered hundreds of thousands of Palestinians across several Arab states. The Palestinians are unlikely to strike any bargain that their Arab backers and neighbors do not support, so the Annapolis conference is meant to make Arabs what one administration official called "ground-floor investors" in the new round of talks. President Bush also said Saudi Arabia would not consider establishing diplomatic relations with Israel until after Palestinian and other territorial questions are settled. Criticism directed at the conference from afar pointed to the enormity of the challenge. Leaders of the Islamic militant group Hamas , for instance, labeled Abbas a traitor even for coming to the meeting, and vowed to reject any decisions to come out of the conference. The events were unfolding here as the Israeli military killed four Palestinians in the Gaza Strip in an airstrike and a ground clash / BBC News /