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. At an evening dinner at the State Department for members of some 50 delegations invited to the talks, Bush toasted the effort and told the guests: "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. Achieving this goal requires difficult compromises, and the Israelis and Palestinians have elected leaders committed to making them." Bush earlier emerged from an Oval Office meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and told him: "I'm looking forward to continuing our serious dialogue with you and the president of the Palestinian Authority to see whether or not peace is possible. I'm optimistic. I know that you're optimistic." Next, he met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas , who stressed the need to address issues of Palestinian statehood, sticking points that have doomed previous peace efforts. "We have a great deal of hope that this conference will produce permanent status negotiations, expanded negotiations, over all permanent status issues that would lead to a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian people," he said. "This is a great initiative and we need his (Bush's) continuing effort to ac hieve this objective." At the dinner, with its menu of red and yellow beet salad and sea bass carefully selected to meet kosher and Muslim dietary guidelines, host Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, sat between Olmert and Abbas . Bush stopped by briefly to share a toast with the participants, and clinked glasses with Abbas and Olmert . They raised their iced tea; for Bush, it was water. No alcohol was served out of respect for Muslim tradition. 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.