WASHINGTON (AP) – President George W. 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.
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 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 (Bush’s) continuing effort to achieve this objective.”
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.
“This time, it’s different because we are going to have a lot of participation in what I hope will launch a serious process negotiation between us and the Palestinians,” Olmert said. He was referring to the talks expected to begin in earnest after this week’s U.S.-hosted meetings.
“We and the Palestinians will sit together in Jerusalem and work out something that will be very good,” Olmert said. As to timing, he added later: “We definitely will have to sit down very soon.”
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.
Some in Bush’s administration doubt that a settlement is possible in such a short time frame and have reservations about whether the Palestinians, in particular, are ready to make necessary concessions. The goal of the talks is to set up an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Bush’s tempered outlook as he readied the Annapolis conference suggested he has his own misgivings, although administration spokesmen said the United States will remain closely involved after Tuesday’s session closes.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the administration is committed to moving the process forward but added that “ultimately, it’s going to come down to the two parties and bridging the differences that now exist between them on all the issues that we know are out there.”
White House press secretary Dana Perino said Bush urged Olmert and Abbas to “seize the moment.”
“He said history is full of missed opportunities because people just looked to the downside,” she said.
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.